Because Poems

Teaching Ross Gay’s “The Truth” to middle and high school students.

At the age of 14 my first “real” job was at Wendy’s. I worked the potato ovens for several weeks until I burned my hand badly. I was then switched over to cashier, but when my drawer was 40 bucks short one day, I was demoted to sweeping up the dining area. This presented another problem in the form of a school nemesis who’d come into the restaurant, order French fries, sit in the dining room, and toss her fries one-by-one onto the floor so she could watch me sweep each one with a broom into a long-handled dustpan that I could never seem to hold right.

At the same time I worked at Wendy’s, my family was about nine years into a desperate attempt to patch itself together after my mother’s death. The patching process is still underway these 30-odd years later, because recovery is slow when no one talks about loss. We prefer to mime our way through innuendo and pain, making our non-actions as weighted and important as anything we might actually say or do.

Perhaps it’s my personal background, then, that first drew me to Ross Gay’s poem “The Truth,” which appears in his first collection, called Against Which:

The Truth
by Ross Gay

Because he was 38, because this
was his second job, because
he had two daughters, because his hands
looked like my father’s, because at 7
he would walk to the furniture warehouse,
unload trucks ‘til 3 AM, because I
was fourteen and training him, because he made
$3.75 an hour, because he had a wife
to look in the face, because
he acted like he respected me,
because he was sick and would not call out
I didn’t blink when the water
dropped from his nose
into the onion’s perfectly circular
mouth on the Whopper Jr.
I coached him through preparing.
I did not blink.
Tell me this didn’t happen.
I dare you.

From Against Which by Ross Gay (CananKerry Press, Ltd. 2006). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Like all poems we choose to teach, Gay’s poem moved me. It moved me not because of what the narrator chooses to do, but because of what he chooses not to do. I liked that it is a humble reflection, and that the narrator made a choice that others may not approve of. And I liked the repetition of the word “because,” how it lilted me along until I came to a full-stop of truth. Naturally I also liked that the narrator is 14 years old, working at a fast food restaurant just like I once did—only this narrator is the better version of me, the less narcissistic one capable of thinking beyond his own discomforts while he works at a job he probably doesn’t love.

The youngest age group I’ve taught “The Truth” to is eighth grade. Children are often asked to reflect upon what they did over the summer, but rarely are they able to write their way to a truth that may cast them in an unfavorable light. So often I overhear angry and self-righteous people talking to their friends and loved ones on city streets and in subway cars, telling everyone how they sure did show that guy or how it’s the last time that sucker will mess with them. That kind of thing. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through a world in which everyone—myself included—is feeling awfully proud for being such a tough guy.

When I teach this poem, I want my students to think deeply about a time when they were not the tough guy. I want them to focus humbly not upon what they said or did, but instead on what they didn’t say or do. What’s more, I want them to narrow this non-action down to a gesture, to something that may not have been noticeable to an onlooker. I want them to think of a time they showed deep compassion for another, or maybe like me in the case of my mother’s death, they chose not to speak about something very important because they felt afraid. I want their poems to be quiet.

When I teach this poem, I want my students to think deeply about a time when they were not the tough guy. I want them to focus humbly not upon what they said or did, but instead on what they didn’t say or do.

I ask my students what word is used most frequently in “The Truth.” I then ask them why it is a person would keep repeating himself: Because he wasn’t heard the first time around? Because what he’s saying is important? Because he’s trying to explain himself clearly? What does the repetition of the word “because” have to do with the title of the poem? How did he come to the truth? I tell students to mimic Gay’s structure if they like—to repeat the word “because” in order to lilt yourself downward toward your truth, using it as a means to peel back the translucent, barely detectable reasons amassed to justify a non-action. At the end of these layers I ask students to reveal the core of their Because Poem, their truth. (It should be noted that Because Poems could also work as an excellent starter for asking students to write a reflective essay.)

After the first read, “The Truth” speaks only to a few teenagers. Some students can’t get past how gross it is that the narrator said nothing about the man’s “water” dripping from his nose into the burger. They say the narrator should’ve been fired and somebody should’ve called the health officials. I agree that a guy’s dripping “water” is unsanitary, but why’d the narrator not even blink when it happened? What do we know about the two characters in the poem? Why does Gay choose language like “he had a wife to look in the face”? I mean, why not just say the guy had a wife who expected him to support the family? High school kids know very well the difference between a 14-year-old fast food manager and a 38-year-old man who’s got real responsibilities like a wife and two kids and two jobs. They know what it means to have to look somebody in the face. They know it cuts deeper.

“The Truth” can cut deep. When I ask students to think humbly about their own lives, there are often only a few takers. . . . But some students are able to use this writing as a way to come to a quiet truth.

“The Truth” can cut deep. When I ask students to think humbly about their own lives, there are often only a few takers. Many students can’t help but make their poems into another opportunity to list this reason they did that thing and that reason they didn’t do this other thing, until they’ve written themselves into a tizzy with no real end. But some students are able to use this writing as a way to come to a quiet truth. When these students write, they are writing about the most interior parts of their lives, the parts they’d prefer, maybe, to hide even from themselves. They write about not passing important tests, disappointing others, breaking up with lovers, fighting with friends, and not always coming out the winner. In short, they write about real life.

by Travis

Because he had a beef with my friends
Because he had a fight with my friend
Because he chose me out of everyone to pull a knife on
Because I woke up the next day not in a good mood
Because when I approached him in breakfast to speak about the situation, he disrespected me
Because even though I left him alone, he had the nerve to still talk about me
Because I got tired of hearing his mouth run on and on
Because he was trynna humiliate me in public
Because I snapped and made his mouth stop running for a while to come
Because I should have just went to class instead of making my biggest mistake ever
Because I turned into a person completely out of character
Because the shy and quiet shell that covered me for so long finally cracked
Because he continued to embarrass me and broke the shell completely
Because my friends were there and I felt as if I had to prove myself
Because I stopped and tipped my peak
Because he swung and tried to hit me
Because I swung back and actually hit him and my anger was being unfair and wouldn’t let me stop
Because of all that…
I ended up in hell for three months.

by Ben

Because when I saw her on the street with another guy
she looked like she wasn’t doing anything wrong
Because maybe she thought she could fool me with anything
Because she thought it was okay to go out with another guy
Because she actually looked happy when she was with the guy
I could only stand under the streetlight with my broken heart
looking at her from far away.

Why I Wanted to Cry by Rosemary O.

Because you were seven years old and couldn’t do subtraction
Because I was failing you
and letting you fail
second grade
Because I took every mistake personally
Because I had number lines,
and flashcards
and I let you count on your fingers
Because there are only
so many ways to explain
that subtraction
means getting smaller.
I asked you what
four minus two
You looked at me
like I had kicked a puppy
And answered,

Sarah Dohrmann is a Brooklyn-based writer of literary nonfiction whose work has appeared in Harper’s MagazineTin House MagazineThe Iowa Review, and New York, among others. She began teaching in the schools with T&W in 2001 and currently teaches at New York University; she also independently leads a personal nonfiction writing workshop called Diving Into the Wreck. After earning her MSW in June 2023, Sarah serves as a clinical social worker in the Domestic Violence Aftercare Program at University Settlement in New York City's Lower East Side.