Welcome to my series “Behind the Poems.” You can read the other posts here.
“Drill Sargeant Dad” was originally published in December 2016 in an online journal called Page & Spine that is no longer active.
Drill Sergeant Dad
I. Second Grade
I came home from school each day with homework, but didn’t need to start
until after my break. I had an hour to eat, watch TV and do nothing.
Then it was back to business.
My dad pulled out the high black chair in the kitchen and had me sit
at the green countertop that looked out at our cluttered Florida room.
Math didn’t call my attention as much as his tools strewn across
the dirty floor outside, with cobwebs covering the corners where a broom
hadn’t reached in eons.
A stern gaze on the back of my head reminded me it was time to practice.
Low whispers like the turning pages of a book came out of my mouth as I recited
the multiplication table to myself. Eight times six is forty-eight.
Nine times five is forty-five. Six times seven is forty-two. On and on
like an unstoppable machine.
After an hour, my dad pulled out the other chair and sat next to me.
He took the paper from my hand and started the drills. Five times seven?
Thirty-five. Six times six? Thirty-six. Nine times six?
Nine times six?
I don’t remember.
You know this. You just looked at it.
I felt the tears well behind my eyes.
I’m sorry. I don’t remember that one.
C’mon, don’t be lazy. Think.
I shook my head and a single sob escaped my lips.
There’s nothing to cry about. Just think.
The tears poured out and my vision blurred. He said something
I couldn’t hear over my crying, but I felt the paper settle back down
on the counter in front of me.
After a while I only hiccupped. I recited the one that had escaped me.
Nine times six is fifty-four. Nine times six is fifty-four…
II. Fourth Grade
I started doing real book reports. Same as usual. Came home.
Took an hour to myself. Sat down at the same counter looking out
at the same cluttered room, this time full of hockey sticks, helmets
and elbow and knee pads.
My dad had me read four chapters. Okay, what did you read?
The main character just escaped from her grandmother’s ghost that tried to grab her.
Do you know why the ghost tried to grab her? No, it didn’t say. Can you guess why?
Silence. I looked down at my hands and fidgeted.
Go skim that part again and tell me why.
But that’s not part of the assignment.
Do it anyway. And no whining.
I muttered under my breath and curled my fingers. I gave a dramatic
sigh and opened the book to read again.
III. Sixth Grade
I played on the girls’ soccer team and dreaded my father’s presence at the games.
He always yelled to go faster, be more aggressive, and don’t be afraid of the ball.
After my first game (we’d lost) I came home and sat at the same counter
to take off my cleats. I swallowed hard to keep from crying.
Hey, you don’t have to cry. It’s one game. You’ll do better next time.
No, I won’t. My voice shook. Not with you yelling at me.
I’m sorry. I’m not yelling to be mean. I just want you to push harder.
Well, I can’t. I’m doing my best and it’s not good enough.
I know you’re trying, but you can always do better. I know you can
because I’ve seen it. I just want you to know it, too.
I looked down at my lap. He kissed the top of my head and left me
sitting in the high black chair. I blinked away a stray tear,
took a deep breath, and got up.
I can’t forget that nine times six is fifty-four. I can do basic math in my head
quicker than it takes most to pull out their phone calculators. I’m a worthy opponent
in a game of Ninety-Nine.
I can’t read anything without questioning everything, trying to decipher
what’s between the lines, behind all the writers’ masks.
I don’t play soccer anymore. But I still run when I can. I push against the fading
breath. I struggle with the pain in my side and chest. I feel the shock go up
my shins with each pounding step against the concrete. Keep going until I can’t.
Everyone waits until someone’s gone to remember what made them important.
But I want to remember now. My dad deserves to know while he’s still around
that what he did and said mattered.
I didn’t understand then why he yelled, and pushed, and trained me.
Like I wasn’t a kid. Like he expected me to be something more.
Because I could be something more. That was how he communicated.
I just had to read between the lines and calculate his words.
I’m so proud of you and I love you.
Journey to the Past, Present, Future
It’s only now occurring to me that this is the longest poem I’ve ever written. I’d originally called it “Eulogy to my Still Living Father.” I wanted to write something that commemorated my complicated relationship with my dad. There’s always been a great deal of love between us, but it hasn’t always been easy.
The older I get, the more I understand how my father shows his love. And the more stories I consume from other children of immigrants, the more I realize it wasn’t just me. There’s so much trauma to unpack from one generation to the next. This poem started me on my journey toward learning that.
It’s funny how I’m revisiting this poem now, during a time when I recently went to therapy and talked through my old resentments. I’m reminded that I’ve gone down this road before.
I have to constantly remind myself that my dad is a human too. I have to remember that I’m human. Neither of us is perfect. We’re both flawed. But every day we get better at knowing and understanding each other.
2 thoughts on “Behind the Poems: Drill Sargeant Dad”
I laughed, and I cried reading your excerpt Drill Sergeant Dad. How very fortunate you were to have him believe in you at such a young age. His belief in you made you the writer you are today.
thank you so much for your kind words. thank you for stopping by and reading