Aracelis Girmay’s Ecstatic Teaching


Aracelis Girmay’s first book of poems, Teeth (2007), includes a poem dedicated to a student. “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card” begins as an ekphrastic description of Estefani’s artwork: “Elephant on an orange line, underneath a yellow circle, / meaning sun. / 6 green, vertical lines, with color all from the top / meaning flowers.” While this poet-teacher is able to decipher the semantics of the imagery, the language on the card proves more difficult. The bulk of the poem is comprised of the poet’s attempt to understand the meaning of the card’s only word: “Loisfoeribari.” Tasked with a difficult reading assignment, the poet plays the role of a student. She tries various definitions:

Loisfoeribari: The scientific, Latinate way of saying hibiscus. 

Loisforeribari: A direction, as in: Are you going
North? South? East? West? Loisfoeribari?

I try, over & over, to read the word out loud.
Loisfoeribari. LoISFOeribari.
LoiSFOEribari. LoisFOERibARI.

What is this word?

I imagine using it in sentences like,

“Man, I have to go back to the house,
I forgot my Loisfoeribari.”


“There’s nothing better than rain, hot rain,
open windows with music, and a tall glass
of Loisfoeribari.”


“How are we getting to Pittsburgh?
Should we drive or take the Loisfoeribari?

The teacher uses all of the intellectual tools at her disposal to help with this hermeneutic challenge. First, she thinks associatively, assuming that the word has some relationship to the accompanying artwork and might belong to the flowers. This move is playful, but it also bespeaks a serious engagement with Estefani as a deliberate wielder of linguistic and imagistic signs. The teacher’s first assumption, however facetious, is that this third-grader would have known the Linnean designation for a common flower. Next, the teacher reasons audially, understanding that to speak this word out loud might give her a different purchase on its meaning. Finally, she attempts to use the word in a sentence, hopeful that plugging the mysterious signifier into a piece of syntax might help her deduce its meaning. Here, the teacher assumes that the word is not only a noun, but a common one—the name for a commodity. This teacher, it appears, also has some experience with spelling bees; her stabs at a definition ask and answer several of the questions allowed in modern competitions. The Scripps National Spelling Bee stipulates that contestants may ask for the given word’s root, part of speech, language(s) of origin, alternate pronunciations, for the word to be used in a sentence, and for the word to be repeated.

Eventually, the teacher gives up and writes Estefani a thank-you card in which she praises Estefani’s brilliance and asks her to define the mystery word. After the letter closes, the teacher returns to the word, repeating it three times in English, twice in Spanish, and then twice slowly. The chant works. After crossing language barriers and slowing the tempo, the poem explodes in a rush of incantatory understanding. The word is actually a sentence: “Love is for everybody.” The narrative immediately gives way to a breathless repetition. Now effectively speakerless, the poem cycles through permutations of the four revealed words: “love is for every every body love love love everybody love everybody love love is love everybody everybody is love.” These permutations at once prolong the ecstatic moment of recognition and retread the interpretative process that preceded it. Each failed attempt to discover what this word meant comes back just here: the studious effort put forth by the teacher is rewarded in a climax that lasts just as long as it took to make. If the end of the poem feels, as conventional creative writing workshop rhetoric might put it, “earned,” it’s because the value of the final feeling includes no surplus in excess of the effort that produced it. 

There are several critical conclusions one might draw from “For Estefani.” With a more critical eye, we might note that the poem seems to show the limits of an English-only educational paradigm. Only once the poet decides to read bilingually does meaning finally flower. Or perhaps we might point out that this poem shows us that, as the pedagogical cliché goes, the roles between teacher and student are reversible. Both teach, and both learn. Or perhaps we could emphasize how this student-teacher relationship takes the beautiful shape it does not inside a classroom, but outside it. The school year is over, and the teacher is at home. From this, we might then recruit the poem into taking any number of ideological positions with respect to contemporary grade-school education. We could describe how the poem obscures the rigors of educational care work and launders this after-hours labor of its actual compulsion. Alternatively, we could say that the poem simply reimagines the rigors of this care work, deliberately rinsing the strain out of the pedagogical fabric, so that we’re left with the real reasons for teaching in the first place.

When I first read Girmay’s poem, it brought me to tears. I can think of several reasons why it might have. First, that question of “craft”: how the poem’s casual construction belies the way its revelatory ending is perfectly appropriate to its development. There’s also, of course, the moral itself. If the message were different (not “love is for everybody” but, say, “keys,” or “lemonade,” or “trains,” as the teacher imagines), the poem wouldn’t work in the same way. But what the extended climax allows me to feel is not simply the pleasure of symmetry, or the pleasure of a handy moral, or the pleasure of having finally solved a tricky linguistic puzzle. What I feel is that, over the course of the poem, the teacher has already practiced what this student is trying to preach. The teacher spends a beautiful June day at home deriving poetic pleasure from a letter from a student; writing a gracious, encouraging note; and dedicating significant mental energy to figuring out what this young girl has to say. So when it becomes clear that, in the ears of the student, our poet has been unknowingly chanting “love is for everybody, love is for everybody, love is for everybody” all along, the joke’s not entirely on her. What I think I feel at the end of the poem, that is, is that the student’s dictum reflects exactly the love she routinely receives from her teacher, and which the poem effectively re-enacts, such that by the end, the teacher is only told something she already knows.

Works Cited

Girmay, Aracelis. Teeth. Curbstone Press, 2007, pp. 86-89.

Alex Streim, a Baltimore-based writer, critic, and educator, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in RHINO and TYPO, his reviews have appeared on ASAP/J and SCOUT, and his criticism has appeared in The Wallace Stevens Journal and Arizona Quarterly.