They come from places named West Oak Lane
or a side street off City Line Avenue,
or other places I mostly don't know.
Though I do know a couple places off North Broad,
off Stenton, like King High School and its metal detectors,
glass-filled parking lot, and raggedy-ass garden
the vice principal was proud to show me.
I don't know what they know: that Uncle Junior died
at nineteen, shot dead just down the block,
that their best friend's mother has a problem
that isn't ever going to be cured. That the police slide
down the street in a cruiser knowing there's something
wrong with you. They have names like Bria, Andre and Dre,
Amir, Tasha and La Tasha. Their names repeat like the old Amish
joke about Raymond Stoltzfus and his cousin Raymond Stoltzfus,
and their neighbor Raymond Stoltzfus.
They come up here, two and a half hours north to these woods
and hills, the flat broad river and the farming valleys.
Might as well be years removed, might as well be another
country because we don't exactly speak the same language
and around here and we don't see things the same way.
Hard to say if we ever will.
Sometimes I'm all they got. This is a wicked and appalling lie.
I'm no savior. I figure they are astute enough to see I've never
lived in a city, only had a bit more than a handful of black friends
in my life, that I know a little too much about white-boy rock music,
purposely pepper lectures with references to old-school
soul. Still, I might remind them of some truck-driving country uncle
from the summer they were sent “down home” to spend time
with the old folks before they passed on. I don’t tell them,
though it's there in my books for all to read, that I was adopted
out of a coal-town orphanage, the offspring of a Baltimore black man
and the granddaughter of a Pennsylvania German farmer,
a couple who got their timing crossed, got everything mixed.
I don't say how when I lived in south Florida for a few years
school segregation just ended which was a good thing for me
since I lived in a white neighborhood, but most people,
like the local barber who refused to cut my colored-boy hair,
might not have wanted me in an elementary school not meant for me.
I never mention my girlfriend of three years who kept me
a secret from her family, or the one before that who didn't
and then had to break up with me.
I don't mention that back in those days I was always
an army of one and no help was ever coming.
But sometimes it was just fine, and sometimes a little lonesome,
and confusing. So maybe I'm a puzzlement to these kids
who come here from Frankford, Roxborough, North Philly,
or lately the Poconos by way of Paterson or the Bronx.
And maybe they wonder whose side I'm on exactly when in class
I help the flannel-shirted kid with the Skoal tobacco tin
in his back jeans' pocket to write a profile of his favorite country singer,
until later I say if I were writing a profile maybe I'd pick Chuck Berry,
who used to move between the blues clubs of Saint Louis to the city's
honky tonks, ciphering on the two, until he invented rock and roll.
Jerry Wemple is the author of three collections of poetry: You Can See It from Here, which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, The Civil War in Baltimore, and The Artemas Poems. He is also co-editor (with Marjorie Maddox) of the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. Wemple's poetry and creative nonfiction have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.