Dispatches from Frontier Schools is a memoir-in-poems where a teacher’s emotions are vividly rendered through scene, metaphor, dialogue, and commentary on the language that dominates public school systems. As the text progresses, the teacher—who once identified with bright color and bodily awareness—watches herself disappear. The aim of the text, then, is to proclaim personhood in the face of a system that strips it.
Reading Dispatches from Frontier Schools is like watching the strongest person you know rupture. It makes you ache. Thankfully, the salvation this teacher clutched was poetry. Now, the world has this book—a serrated testament to the reality of teaching, a crucial read.
In this interview, Sarah Beddow gives shape to her hopes and process with writing Dispatches.
Marah Hoffman: Teachers are rarely afforded the space to consider their wants and needs. Dispatches creates this crucial space—making sound where there has been noxious silence. Was diminishing such silence one of your goals when you set out to write Dispatches from Frontier Schools? Could you describe your motivations for writing the text?
Sarah Beddow: My job at Frontier was so difficult; I cried all the time and worked all the time. Work and cry, cry and work. Explaining why it was so hard often felt futile. I would sit down with one of a rotating cast of principals, and we would try to figure out how to streamline the work, usually by doing one of those important-urgent matrices. But the fact was that the work in the important/urgent quadrant alone was overwhelming. The worst part was that even though I would stump my principals with the course load they had saddled me with—proving my point that it was obviously too much—I still came away from the meetings feeling like nothing sounded that horrible, and I was just whining.
Back in the real world, I felt like my family and friends didn’t really understand either. Mostly they wondered why I didn’t just quit, and it was hard to explain how wonderful it feels when a lesson just hits or when you have a silly or heartfelt moment with a student you really like.
So, I started writing these poems as Facebook posts, titling each one “Dispatch” and numbering it in sequence. The goal started on a very personal, limited scale: see me and hear me, my loved ones. The goal remains personal in that I want people to understand my story
But I do think there is a whole missing cultural narrative about what it is like to teach day in and day out. I hope this book does some work towards broadening the narratives possible about teaching. (As an aside, Abbott Elementary is doing a great job of looking at the day-to-day lives of teachers. It is also much funnier than I am, and I’m not surprised that people are into it.)
MH: The details you include from your life are so palpable and jagged—their realness undeniable. I’m sure this was no easy feat since the days you describe occurred years ago. What was your process for recreating these experiences on the page? Did you keep journals while you were teaching? I also invite you to discuss your use of epigraphs while answering this question if you’d like.
SB: I drafted at least three-quarters of these poems on the day the events occurred. I also had a growing collection of scraps—post-its, unused half-handouts—where I wrote down the “moves” of a poem as the connections and resonances came to me, helping me write most of the remainder within weeks or months of the events happening. By the time I was in year four or so, I knew there was an arc to the story. By the time the pandemic set in during my fifth year at Frontier, I knew that reality had just given me an ending. From there, I ordered and arranged and looked for the holes that needed to be filled in. (See a picture of the whole manuscript, taped to my closet and colored coded, on my publisher Riot in Your Throat’s blog.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest hole was levity—all the love, friendship, and good work, but also the silliness. I wrote those final poems based on memory and all those little scraps of paper.
As to the epigraphs, I have a very practical answer: the book is filled with them because I taught English literature and lived with the same core set of texts over many years. I was very fortunate in that I got to choose my own books to teach, so I taught all stuff I love. I mean, except Hamlet, which felt more like an expediency given my students had to take an AP Lit test at the end of the year. But after five years of Hamlet, I even love that play! I still quote Hamlet pretty often—I literally can’t help it, the lines are inside of me. Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is similarly embedded deep in my brain and heart. It was before I taught it, but now I think I will have chunks of it memorized until I die. My teaching was in conversation with those texts. It made sense to me, as I wrote, that my poems would also be in conversation with them.
MH: Language is a notable theme. Throughout Dispatches, you discuss how administrators patrol the language surrounding education, believing this will affect outcomes. For example, there is a shift to referring to students as “scholars.” Why is it important to consider the language used in school systems in a creative work about education?
SB: I am always a words person. I think it’s a reach to say that every word a person utters reveals something about them, but I don’t take people’s word choices lightly. The words that institutions use are especially telling because they are chosen very carefully, and they often work to insulate the institution from deserved criticism. I find the idea that you can call kids “scholars” and that this alone will change how everyone sees and treats them so fucked up. It’s a move that seems progressive and dedicated on the surface but in reality is distancing and weirdly dehumanizing. Students are not scholars! They are kids! And kids need things like art and music, physical activity, joy, and socializing. They need recess and access to green spaces. Scholars, however, do not need those things. Good thing, too, because the high schools of Frontier did not have robust arts programs, nor did my kids have access to fresh air during the day.
MH: The word “body” is used often, increasing in amount as the text progresses. This repetition is what I assume to be the attempted antidote to Dispatches’ cover art: a woman turned blur within the classroom. Would you be willing to expound upon the importance of the word “body” in this collection?
SB: I have always lived very much in my body. I was a gymnast from an early age, spending many hours in the gym. By the time I was a teenager, I had a very healthy libido and indulged it pretty much whenever I could. I have always understood that my body and my face are the way I move through the world. I’ve never been able to disappear wholly into my mind or my accomplishments. I write from my body because that’s the only way I know how.
Having a body while teaching is fraught. It’s an ordeal just to have enough time to go to the bathroom, and you often spend most of your day working a room or patrolling hallways. But teaching high school is especially fraught, because the students are increasingly aware of their own bodies and their bodies’ needs. Acknowledging that is like a third rail in educational spaces—often for good reason—but it was always hard for me to miss entirely. I once made an offhand remark about sex (the most generic remark, to be clear) and a student made an “ew” face and looked just shocked. “There are pictures of my kids on the wall!” I said, to which the student replied that it was gross that parents have sex. That was a real arrival for me, to finally be old enough to be seen as a “parent.” My years teaching before Frontier were marked by many high school boys hitting on me because I looked so very young. (Always a yikes!).
All of which is to say, I experienced teaching as intensely embodied, in part because I knew that the institution would rather I was some kind of robot and in part because the job literally put me on my ass more than once. It’s impossible to work that hard and not have your body give out. The longer I taught, the more it became crucial to me to acknowledge and own my physical needs as a kind of resistance.
MH: Motherhood is mentioned a few times in Dispatches. I am sure many other teachers struggle with being a mother and leading a classroom—“an artificial matriarchal space” (17). What was your thought process as you determined the presence you wanted motherhood to have in this text?
SB: I felt so guilty the whole time I was at Frontier, because I knew I was working too hard and missing out on my kids at home. I was not the best mother I could be to my own kids while I was teaching full-time. But also, I could never let go of the fact that other parents entrusted their kids to me (and my colleagues). That was always the impossible bind: I couldn’t do less because these are other people’s kids. I could not separate the responsibility I feel for my own kids from the one I felt toward my students. But I also couldn’t meet everyone’s needs. Those competing responsibilities come from the same place inside me, so there was no other way to write but to include my mothering.
MH: There are different types of danger described: the immediate, bodily danger of bomb threats and potential shooters; the slow-kill danger of losing your personhood within a suppressive school system; and the pervasive danger of being a woman in society. Why was it essential to include all three forms of danger? How do they compound each other in the life of an educator?
SB: I kind of feel like my answer to all of these questions is the same: all of these things are always completely wrapped up in each other. I taught 12th-grade English, and the course was designed around critical lenses. We studied feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and reader response theories. I planned and taught my courses with my whole self, so I saw resonances among the theories, our texts, and current events all the time—and so brought them into the classroom. My students did, too. I taught a unit for a few years where students analyzed the goals and functions of American public education, and the kids had many eye-opening realizations. I had so many conversations with kids—in that unit but also more generally—where they knew they were being disserved by Frontier, but also that it wasn’t really better anywhere else. And they knew we as their teachers were getting ground up, too. Intersectionality was a topic of study, but it was also how all of us lived our lives because if you are in a failing institution, it’s hard not to see the cracks.
MH: I ask this question on behalf of writers who relate to the unrelenting absence of time to write. How did you find the time to write Dispatches?
SB: I wrote these poems because I was compelled, because it was not a choice. I wrote them as pain cries and flung them out into the universe. Most of the poems were written on stolen time, a half hour at a time. Then it was a pandemic, and my parents supported us financially so I wouldn’t have to return to a school building without knowing what the dangers were. That also meant I had—all of a sudden—an enormous amount of time.
MH: Finally, how did you consider audience while writing Dispatches? Is there anything specific you hope fellow educators glean from the text?
SB: I thought very hard about audience when I was assembling and revising the text, which led me to the first poem “Dispatch re: You.” I really wanted to write to the people who thought I was a saint for teaching in urban schools. I felt it was important to complicate the narrative about myself as a teacher—just as much or more so than it was to (continually) argue for the humanity of my students. As I point out in that poem, in conversation I would often try to humanize my kids for others, usually by pointing out that seniors everywhere get really excited about prom! They also get nervous about college, cheat by reading SparkNotes instead of the novel, and generally fuck around and find out. But I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the perception that I was out there Dangerous-Minds-ing and saving lost souls or some such. My students have stories and agency of their own and they do not need me to humanize them. They are human all on their own. My story, however, is mine to tell. And teachers are, sadly, I think, always in need of humanizing.
Many teachers have read the book and told me they recognize their experiences in it. I couldn’t ask for more, really, than having another educator read my story and say, “Yes. This is how it is. I rarely see anyone talk about it, so thank you for saying it out loud.” I’m still kind of waiting for someone to tell me about the mistakes I made when teaching or the mistakes I made when writing about my students; I think I will carry that anticipation forever. But I’ve made my peace with it (to the best of my ability). I did the best job I could as a teacher. And I did the best job I could when writing the book. Those mistakes are mine and I will own them—that in itself is an essential part of the project.
Thanks for all of these wonderful questions and your careful reading of my book. It means the world to me!
Sarah Beddow is a poet, essayist, and mother. She is the author of the memoir-in-poems Dispatches from Frontier Schools (Riot in Your Throat) and the chapbook What’s pink & shiny/what’s dark & hard (Porkbelly Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Bone Bouquet, Rogue Agent, GlitterMOB, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere, and she is on the board of Awesome Pittsburgh, which grants money – cold hard cash with no strings attached – to fund awesome projects in the Pittsburgh area. Find her online at impolitelines.com.
Marah Hoffman is a 2022 graduate with a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she works for the Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she enjoys immersing herself in a new and radiant literary community. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her favorite word changes nearly every week.