For the summer I’m looking at my Brown Betty chapbook. All the pieces dealt with growing up in Cape Breton.


‘don’t bite your nails’ 


I never knew I was biting my nails 

till I was told to stop
it kept me from chewing my lower lip 

good thing I didn’t have long hair
or I’d have been chewing on that too 


I rubbed my eyes
tried to focus on the blackboard 

so much to learn 

all I could think was 

that I’d never learn it all 


‘stop biting your nails’ ‘sorry’


I didn’t feel my teeth 

try to find a bit of nail 

how did it happen 

that Mike Kennedy two rows over 

never did things like that
he never got a runny nose
and let it dribble on his tongue


Mike turned around to say something 

to Trevor Steeles behind him
they laughed looked at
Liz Sampson 

on the other side of me 

she stared out the window
as she chewed her hair 


the teacher droned on
‘take notes this will be on the exam’ 


our little pens itched
page after page of big words
all of which would be on the exam 

dazed I filled the margins
with small zigzag mazes
when I was trying not to bite my nails
or chew my lower lip bloody


little mazes
that never got me out of this puzzle
I could barely grasp
the writing on the blackboard
a scattering of thin snow on mud
I had to plod through this sludge
to rescue meaning
then I’d be safe

on the other side of the exams 


‘stop biting your nails 

you can’t take notes 

with your fingers in your mouth’
the class all looked at me laughing


‘it helps me think’ 


‘another reason to stop
at your age 

is a dangerous thing’


‘yes sir, I’ll never 

think in your class again’


funny what I could say
when my fingers stopped 

getting in the way 

All through school I had attention problems. I was easily distracted and was more interested in things around me than what the teacher was saying. I was one of those kids who filled in all the ‘o’ on a page. In high-school teachers would often dictate things for us to write down – no mimeographed hand-outs in those days – the theory being writing it out made more of an impression on the teen brain. Sometimes we had to hand in our note books for the teacher to approve of our note taking.

This is a Sydney Academy high-school memory. I think the class was Civics, in which we were learning about government from the top down – federal, provincial, city. It made running for alderman very unappetizing 🙂 My attention would always wander in this class and I would be abruptly brought to reality by the teacher. Was I biting my nail at this moment? Possibly. In this class we weren’t allowed to fidget either.

I wasn’t considered out of the bright boys in the class & didn’t get much attention from the teacher. I stop nothing too put my hand up as the keeners quickly got all his focus. I did doodle in my notebooks. zig-zags, spirals that sort of thing. When taking notes I was something writing teen-age angst poetry with lots of rhymes – because that was how one wrote real poetry. Influenced by Paul Simon mainly with a dash of Dylan.

I got caught doodle daydreaming more than once in this class & the teacher never hesitated to point out to me, in front of the class, that I wasting my brain by not paying attention to his insights. If wanted to get better than c’s I’d have to smarten up etc. I did innocently say ‘I was thinking’ & gave the ‘never think’ reply too. He had me stay after class to lecture me on being a smart mouth. I think it was the closet I ever came to a teaching calling me smart.


I didn’t dare tell him that what I was thinking of, sometimes, were the barely hidden boners of a couple of my classmates. Maybe that’s what I imagining myself biting when I was biting my nails 🙂 



previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1

When I Was A Young Boy

Home (not of the brave)

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy coffee on my trip to Cape Breton – sweet,eh? 

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