Degrees of Doneness

As the steak-cook at Hy’s
I could grill up to fifty hunks
of beef—strip loin, sirloin, tenderloin
rib eye, all different sizes and degrees
of doneness—at the same time, and
usually feel confident
about putting each one on a plate
and sending it out
into the dining room.

Dozens of diners would watch
me in my glass box,
hunkered over the glowing charcoal,
sweat seeping up the rim of my hat
and into the kerchief tied around my neck.
They would speculate about which steaks
were theirs as I brushed meat with oil,
shook seasoning salt, rotated each one
forty-five degrees to achieve the perfect
grill marks. I knew the hot spots
and quirks of the fire and with my tongs
I would press gently in the middle
of each one to determine how much
more time it needed on the grill.

Inevitably one or two would come back
in need of more time, the centre
a little too rare
for the customer’s liking.

I become as familiar as I can with
my students’ unique textures.
They come in so many different cuts
and degrees of doneness.
My brow is dry but the sweat seeps inward.
Parents press their faces against the glass.
The hot spots change
by the minute. I turn and season
each student, press them gently
without knowing
what to feel for, and when I slap them
on a plate and send them into the world

I never really know how rare they are.

~ Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry is a junior high school teacher in Calgary, and a creative writing student at the University of Calgary. Much of his writing is inspired by his work as a teacher. His poems have appeared in The Prairie Journal, NoD Magazine, and The Gauntlet. He is currently working on his MFA in Creative Writing through the optional-residency program at UBC. He is grateful to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for their financial support of his current writing project, a book-length manuscript of teacher poems, as well as his students, for driving him to write poetry. He and his wife have a one-and-a-half-year-old son.

“Students may not call school home, but in many ways it is their home. It is a place that helps shape their lives—where they meet friends and make enemies, where they learn, cheat, fight, fall in love again and again and again. It is a place where they can be surrounded by people yet feel completely alone. School is an amazing world that is in such a constant state of flux that, for anyone to try and grasp it fully seems to me an impossible task. My writing is an attempt to grope at some semblance of understanding of the complex world of school in all its idiosyncrasies.”

Editor’s note: This poem is from Home and Away – a sequel to the bestselling Writing the Land (2007). Look for one poet to be featured each day as Alberta poets ponder the question “what is home?” and explore our complex relationship with working on, living with, exploiting and protecting our land and our home. For more information about the project, click here.

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