Tom Wayman writes in the opening blurb of Lessons in Falling: “Teachers are the only people willing to stay in school indefinitely.” Indeed, many teachers and students both will see themselves in these gems of metaphor that Calgary poet and author T.B. Perry offers us, often in refreshing ways. And refreshing is something you need if you happen to spend a lot of time in something as institutional as school.
Perry is masterful in his rendering of current issues in public schools these days. Everything from junior high school vanities, the “special” relationship teachers have with the technological trappings of their profession (such as photocopiers and Scantron exam machines), to domestic violence, school shootings, bullying and suicide. He leaves no stone unturned in his often humorous, not uncommonly bittersweet musings of the lives of those who expect to dedicate large chunks of their time in the public school system — whether by their own choice or someone else’s.
Perry’s personal experiences in the classroom impart authenticity to the poems in this title. He certainly wastes no time in examining each experience and distilling the purest moments, using fitting literary devices to invite the reader into them. This enables readers to feel the immediacy of each experience and be willing and empathic conspirators in Perry’s classroom. He paints the school as behemoth in the very first poem in the book — about a leviathan imminently about to awake with the coming school year. The title poem “Lessons in Falling” addresses the precarious balance between stepping into students’ lives to guide them and leaving them to discover and error on their own. “Drone” is a comical account of how the technical minutiae of an overhead projector sometimes seems to take over your mind in a class you’d rather be sleeping through.
Then there are his lucid commentaries on school violence, the reasons people choose to be teachers and the students they hope to reach but inevitably feel they’ve failed. Perry takes the reader into these worlds and paints a landscape that many will find immediately familiar, often nostalgic and sometimes uncomfortable. Perry’s art lies in his use of metaphor and personification to slowly tease his audience’s interest and attention into seeing the classroom as both an altered state of reality as well as a microcosm of the “adult” world most of us inhabit now, albeit with slightly more intense emotional peaks and valleys.
Aside from their poignancy, the poems in Lessons in Falling serve to bring to greater awareness the fragility, foibles and energy of young minds, sometimes with ironic but amusing wrappings. Perry doesn’t preach or pontificate, but rather reminds readers of a place they’ve been before, perhaps forgotten, but that nonetheless affects them in profound and often unconscious ways. Lessons in Falling deserves to be heard rather than read, and as a slam poet, Perry has probably performed many of these works live. In the absence of the spoken word, however, reading these poems is not a wholly unsatisfying endeavour.