The Fire at Ensley High

by Paul Hooker

Perhaps the fire began in the same room
where we read lines from Tempest and Othello,
or broke the bones of sentences with diagrams,
or probed the mystic realms of frog anatomy.
Perhaps the flames caught on where he taught civics
and government became too much a burden
for the floor and set the French ablaze—
Allons, enfants de la Patrie (“Tout ensemble!”)
le jour de gloire est arrivé! (“C’est bon!”
At last the weight of Latin conjugations
amo-amas-sed, collapsed, and fell on trig,
reducing calculus to noxious slag.
Charred and smoldering soot, as black as coal,
dark Venus on a half-shell birthed in smoke.

Yet is this not but latest of the fires
lit where Hamlet questions his ontology
and language conjures magic on the tongue
and democracy is more than happy theory
and derivatives chart changes in our functions?
The fires sparked in these empty rooms
burn in a thousand places, for weal and woe,
where chemistry is more than fills a test tube
and physics limns a path to the divine.

Burn on! Give everything to fuel the blaze!
Bright against the blackboard of the night,
nec tamen consumebatur, nor shall be,
nor yet succumb to new day’s waxing sun.
Burn on! It is the maintenance of memory
will buff the floors and wipe the dust from desks
and clear a windowed prospect on the stars.
Burn on, and never let be thrown the deadbolt
to bar the possibilities of hope.
Burn on, bright beacon, burn while there is time.
The dawn is soon and we have much to learn.

[Note: The abandoned building that once housed my high school alma mater, Ensley High School in Birmingham, AL. burned a few nights ago. The building is almost certainly beyond repair and will, after standing for more than a century, be torn down. ]