Each school day for thirty-six years, the children walked into now- retired Ceres teacher Linda Scheller’s fifth-grade classroom, eager to learn but “often burdened by grinding poverty and difficult family situations at home.”
“A lot of my students’ families were very, very poor,” Ms. Scheller recounted recently when interviewed about her powerful new collection of poetry, Wind and Children (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, www.MainStreetRag.com), which focuses on her lengthy teaching career and the lives of the children she touched as “mother of thousands.”
“Their families worked very hard, and their housing situations were often insecure, to put it mildly,” she continued. “Many of the parents worked in the fields and orchards of the Valley – a lot of work in agriculture. If someone got a job in a cannery, that was great. That was a much better-paying job.”
“But more than likely they were out in the sun, working the fields, pruning the fruit trees – doing all the back-breaking work that goes into agriculture when you are either a migrant laborer or have recently arrived in this country and need to find work to support your family – say, mucking around in a feed lot, and working for the person who owns that dairy.”
“One of the reasons I wrote this book and feel so strongly about getting it into the world is that I believe a lot of Americans are unaware of the extent of childhood poverty that exists in this country. It’s just appalling.”
In this splendid book, dedicated “…with love and gratitude to the students, teachers, and staff with whom I worked and learned,” Ms. Scheller’s poems bring into razor-sharp detail the world in which her students struggled to survive conveyed in strong, beautifully accessible language. These are poems that only a caring, sensitive teacher could have written, and the portrayals she shares of her students and their often tragic lives are extraordinarily gripping. “Olivero Road” begins:
carries a rifle
beside his flowering pride…
one of my ex-students
gone out to kill
birds and cats
replace the unseen enemy
that holds him down…
The second poem in Wind and Children is “The Examination” in which the speaker’s fifth-graders seem haunted by “the premonition of age…coating their wings.”
In “The Teacher” and other deftly observant poems Ms. Scheller’s work is almost cinematic:
The grades she issues are written
with spittle, and at midnight she prays
for the power to move small fates
to the other side of town. Obscenities
are scratched into desk tops, and alms
of secondhand toys line the shelves.
Of course, it was these difficult, disheartening circumstances she daily encountered that energized Ms. Scheller as a teacher. She instinctively knew she was making a difference the minute she saw the faces of her students as they scrambled for their desks at first bell. She knew that classroom in Ceres was where she was meant to be.
“I loved teaching.” Ms. Scheller fondly remembers “I really loved it. I couldn’t wait. Every morning I’d pop out of bed and get to school hours early because I wanted to be really ready and get everything situated. I loved the creativity that the job demanded. I loved sharing that excitement with the kids and piquing their curiosity and helping them find their strengths.”
“I had students who came from Mexico and Central America, and, of course, many white kids. But I also had students who came from Fiji and Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Ukraine, and Africa. It was marvelous to be amongst such diversity.”
“I also loved being part of this human network and finding out more about humanity and our connection to one another – how we can help each other, and relate to and learn from each other. And appreciate that we are all different in a lot of ways, and how that can be a source of real delight.”
Ms. Scheller retired from teaching five years ago (though she continues to work as hard and creatively as ever on a variety of projects https://thevalleycitizen.com/community-profile-award-winning-poet-kcbp-radio-programmer-linda-scheller/), but still holds passionate views about the current state of the educational system and the children and families that system is meant to serve.
“Right now teachers are leaving in droves. The pandemic has certainly been very challenging and difficult, but there had been so many problems before that. I left because I got really tired of the overemphasis on data which didn’t take into account the circumstances of individual schools and the barriers so many students faced.”
“We hear talk about ‘bad’ or poorly performing schools. Usually, what we are really talking about are impoverished, marginalized communities of color and all the systemic racism that has led those communities into being thus undermined. I hear people saying ‘Oh, the schools should be teaching critical thinking or teaching kids how to be happy.’ Of course, we do teach critical thinking and kindness, but I think what many people don’t realize is that when children are hungry, when they are homeless or living in a violent neighborhood, when they are afraid for their lives and their families are in dire straits, then learning anything while trying to survive becomes very difficult.”
“I really hope that people can take a comprehensive view and be more compassionate, and hopefully be more proactive in insisting that we do a better job of providing for children and their families and taking care of people in our midst.”
Citing Wallace Stevens, Diane Wakoski, and Gerard Manley Hopkins as early influences, among others, while admiring the work of contemporary poets Patricia Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Troy Jollimore, Ms. Scheller follows a strict regimen in her own work as a writer and poet.
“I write something or at least revise something every day,” she explained. “I may not complete a piece or start something new every day, but I also do a lot of submissions. In the process of submitting my work, I scrutinize my writing and frequently will make small changes. The potential for revision is always there. Sometimes I use writing prompts, but not that often. For me – especially now that I’m retired and have more time to pursue my own interests, I’ll try to challenge myself with form. For example, I’ll try and have the lines all the same length, but at the same time I’m trying to maintain a musicality and pay attention to diction, meter, alliteration and assonance. I like working within those kinds of constraints.”
“Strangely, I find that it’s both more liberating and productive. I want to have some parameters, to make some choices and then have to fit ideas and images into those parameters. That, to me, is much more exciting. I enjoy crafting poems.”
In addition to standing as a testament to the hardships and injustices she witnessed as a teacher of marginalized fifth-graders in the Valley, Wind and Children goes beyond the school grounds as Ms. Scheller writes – often despairingly – of California’s tortured landscapes, of our “era of deforestation and burning” where “plants wither and rivers disappear.” These images of anguish and sterility are indeed stark and sobering – and a call to action for all concerned.
But Wind and Children ends on a high note. In the collection’s final poem, “Insert joy here,” Ms. Scheller, always “a lover of wind and clouds,” practically cries out at the skies:
This morning this
Modesto artist Henrietta Sparkman created the beautiful artwork for the cover of Wind and Children. The book is exceptional, by one of our area’s leading poets, and I highly recommend reading it.