“Did I Miss Anything?”
How did the poem come to be written?
This poem arose because this question that students ask is really quite an aggressive question, although many students are unaware of this aspect of the words they utter when they speak to the instructor after they’ve been away from class. Every teacher spends hours preparing a course of instruction, thinking hard about the best way to present the material that she or he is going to impart during a certain class session. Besides reviewing or setting out for the first time the details of the lesson, a teacher will be considering the optimum manner to introduce, develop, and summarize the content of the lesson. A teacher may evaluate how he or she has conducted a class on this topic in the past, and figure out some methods to revise or tweak the upcoming session for maximum effectiveness.
Then, during the class itself, a teacher is constantly monitoring the effect of her or his presentation—am I holding the students’ interest? Are they nodding off, or distracted? Does it look like at least my main points are getting across? A teacher will be thinking about how to best use voice and classroom aids like blackboard or whiteboard or computer projections. Also, the teacher will be considering on the fly when and how long he or she should speak, when to ask questions of the class, when to let the students ask questions, whether small group work or individual student desk work is appropriate. And when a class is over, a teacher can’t help evaluating the pros and cons of that day’s session.
Then an absent student shows up and asks whether “anything” happened in the class. The assumption behind the question is that all this work by the teacher doesn’t really amount to “anything.” So the question—intentionally or not—belittles all the effort the teacher has put into doing his or her job. Thus the question can provoke a flash of rage on the teacher’s part, the same rage anybody feels when important work they do is airily dismissed by somebody else as not really amounting to “anything.” Students can feel the same anger when an assignment they have really and truly toiled over is breezily dismissed or otherwise put down by an instructor.
My poem is a compilation of all the answers I wanted to give to students who asked the question during one semester when I was teaching at a community college in a Vancouver, B.C. suburb. I never actually gave these answers, but I sure thought them.
Why do you think the poem has been so widely reprinted?
Because of the anger and hate in the poem’s sarcasm, the poem—to my surprise—has become a favorite with teachers at all levels, and is the most widely reproduced of everything I’ve written and published during more than four decades. The poem has been in countless teachers’ newsletters, and on innumerable course outlines, and posted on office doors, office walls, and teachers’ staffrooms. One college teacher friend of mine who used it on a course outline had a student come up to the front after the class in which the outline was handed out. The student complained that the poem couldn’t have been written by anybody called “Tom Wayman,” because his math teacher in high school had handed out the poem, and the teacher said the poem was written by Anonymous. One bootleg version of the poem circulates on the Internet formatted as centered (like a wedding invitation) and another version has the poem written out as a block of prose (no line breaks or stanza breaks).
Can you say something about the form of the poem?
The use of a recurring indented stanza is intended to show the speaker is swinging back and forth widely in his or her sarcasm, between answering “Everything” or “Nothing.” At the back of my mind was that these would be different answers given to different students who ask the question that is the title. Though the speaker is shifting wildly between extremes (“everything” and “nothing”), there is supposed to be the same amount of nasty sarcasm in each case. But the indented stanzas are meant to emphasize how the speaker is bouncing back and forth in his or her replies to the question.
How would you categorize the tone of the poem?
The speaker in the poem (as I say in the paragraphs above) is quite out of control with anger and hate, and is swinging between extremes of everything and nothing, since he or she feels driven to the edge by the assumptions behind the repeated use of this question by students. The speaker is freaking, pushed too far, at the end of his or her rope. The speaker realizes that what she or he is teaching isn’t really anything divinely important. But what the teacher makes happen in class is not of zero value, either, as the question so strongly implies. So the speaker is really mocking the question that has been asked of him or her once too often.
How is the theme of religion used in the poem?
The theme of religion appears partly as a component of the exaggerated bit about the appearance of the angel. But I use it, too, because there are strong links between learning and religion. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, religious leaders had to be educated to read holy books, conduct religious rituals properly, etc. The first universities were religious institutions to train clergy and religious scholars—an offshoot of the kinds of activities that went on at medieval monasteries: collecting, copying and studying ancient and holy texts, learning and teaching languages needed to study these texts (Latin, Hebrew, Greek, etc.), memorizing and carrying out religious rituals, and so on. A lot of the silly clothes that university faculty wear on formal occasions—the gown and goofy hat—are descendents of clerical garb. Also, in one sense, any divine revelation—such as the angel appearing in my poem—is a sort of high-speed education. Supposedly all at once some truth or truths are revealed, instead of a person having to painstakingly discover truths about existence via years of study and thought and experimentation.
What does the poem really mean? That is, what hidden meanings are present in the poem?
There are no hidden meanings in my poems. They are meant to be straightforward statements. Of course, the poem “Did I Miss Anything?” has a mocking tone, and when people are angry they say things they don’t mean. For example, the sarcastic speaker in my poem is pretending to answer the student’s question honestly but in fact is taking a round-about way to say to the student that there’s something wrong with the way the student has phrased the question.
Language is tricky that way: in certain moods, we often say the opposite of what we mean, or at least mean something different than what we say. “What-ever” used as a put-down doesn’t really mean the speaker is fine with what has been said or done. “What-ever” actually signals that the speaker doesn’t agree with what has just been said or done, but at best is resigned to the stupidity (as the speaker sees it) of what has just been said or done.
In my poems, the only hidden meaning are the meanings we hide in language all day long. One of my models for poetry is the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. In one interview, the questioner mentions that Neruda frequently refers in his poetry to doves and guitars, and asks Neruda what these references REALLY mean in his poems. Neruda says: “When I use the word ‘dove’ in my poem I’m referring to a bird called a dove, and when I use the word ‘guitar’ I mean to indicate a musical instrument known as a guitar.” I’ve always loved that answer.
Do you think your poem has a good effect on students?
I stopped showing the poem to my students, because when I did they became more aggressive. The sentence they used after they had read the poem became a declarative one, rather than an interrogative. After they missed a class or classes, they’d say to me: “I didn’t miss anything, did I.” The last two words were uttered like a dare.