On the Radio

Richard Terrill

“I wrote my answer about my parents dying in the same year,
one in the spring and one in the fall.”
  —Cecil Smith, age 94, oldest known recipient of a GED

I wonder what the question was,

and what those in charge,

suits and ties in Central Office,

those who studied education hard but hated

to teach and couldn’t say so,

what they expected the young people to answer;

1. In 500 words, why did you quit school?

2. What is the worst thing that can happen to someone?

3. What did you learn from experience

you could not have learned in school?

The inflection of the interviewer rises and falls,

peaks and valleys of condescension.

She talks as if he understood

a different language

(he does, though not the one she speaks).

It was the kind of feature they run ten minutes

before the news, public radio

finding novelty, reaching

beyond New York to the provinces.

Her voice climbs the ladder of the slide

then starts down the waxed way

“What’s next for you, Mr. Smith, a dorm room at UCLA?”

“Well, keeping good health, I imagine.”

4. In eighty years or less, describe

one unimaginable sorrow. Be vague,

general, and philosophical. Cite examples

only from your own experience, feeling free

to ignore the reading selections from your test packet.

5. Have you ever felt bad about an experience

and later realized you shouldn’t have?

If not, explain

Richard Terrill, a former student and instructor at UW-Eau Claire, is the author of two collections of poems: Almost Dark and Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the Minnesota Book Award; as well as two books of creative nonfiction, Fakebook: Improvisations on a Journey Back to Jazz and Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir, winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for nonfiction. View more of Richard's work.