McALLEN — William Greer had to write in a hurry.
He’d been in class earlier that day, a month or so ago, when he started getting bombarded by texts and calls. He finally called back after his parents started getting calls, worried he was in trouble for something.
Greer wasn’t in trouble. On the contrary, the IB Lamar senior had been selected by McAllen ISD to write an ode to teachers, a poem the district wanted commissioned to be a tribute to teachers working through a particularly trying pandemic school year.
“We believed that using poetry would have this emotional touch that we were looking for, and we believe that we captured it just perfect. We got a lot of positive feedback, so we’re very happy and I’m very proud of our students that took part in making this a reality for us, because without them it wouldn’t have happened,” Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said.
A number of students sent in poems, the district billed the project as a search for its very own Amanda Gorman, the poet whose readings made waves at Joe Biden’s inauguration and the Super Bowl.
The poem Greer wrote would, ultimately, be the district’s choice — the perfect praise for its teachers. The district didn’t give Greer a whole lot of time to get to perfection. When they finally got him on the phone they told him that they wanted the poem by the next day, so he got to work.
They’d picked a good poet. A Valley transplant with an East Texas twang, Greer is a natural storyteller.
He has a preference for writing short stories, but the 18-year-old knows his poetry too. Searching for inspiration, he rifled through scraps of things he’d written before and drew on what he’d experienced in the last year.
Many of those experiences had been tough. One of his uncles had been hospitalized with COVID-19, and Greer had gone through the social isolation that accompanies physical separation, a lack of contact with his friends and peers that made for a trying senior year.
“It’s been hard,” he said.
Worrying less about structure than about the way the poem sounded and what it meant, Greer wrote about how hard it is to communicate online; he got political, in a veiled fashion, referencing states where there’d been teachers’ strikes in the past few years.
He wrote about the impact teachers have on their students, declaring them “a warrior in the uniform of an ordinary citizen.”
“In that line I just really wanted to acknowledge how brave they are, and that all the work they do culminates into something big,” he said Thursday. “We become writers, we become small business owners, we can become executives. There’s so many paths that teachers forge for us.”
Greer was methodical. He worked through it like a math problem, ending on a bright note — students’ appreciation for their teachers.
“I think about how you start a poem with a problem and you work through the poem and each stanza’s a solution, it’s a step toward gaining clarity and at the end you finally have the solution, and you can kind of embrace it and sympathize with it and do better,” he said.
In short, Greer distilled almost a year of not seeing his teachers onto a page in his leather-bound journal. He turned it in the next day, pleased with it, considering the timeline.
“I think what made me proud the most was writing it in such a short time,” he said.
The district filmed a video of Greer’s poem being read the day after he turned it in. It’s an artsy rendition, a clip of Greer reading the first bit followed by videos of other students reading stanzas cut with black and white footage from McAllen ISD’s pandemic year.
The video went online the next day. Greer’s grandmother looked it up that day, telling Greer 11,000 people had watched it. He figured she’d found it, he didn’t think so many people would have watched it in so little time.
It was the video though, and Greer’s poem was resonating with people.
“I started laughing, I was like, ‘This is crazy,’” he said.
Many of the people interacting with the post online were teachers, Greer could tell, some he knew and some he didn’t. They said the poem was just what they needed. They said it was a boost of energy. They said thank you.
“It has been such a difficult year for teachers, and to hear his poem, really conveying his gratitude was — it came at an incredibly needed time,” Christina Calvillo, a teacher at Lamar, said. “In the profession that we are in, gratitude isn’t something that we come across all the time, and so for William to take time to really put it into a beautiful poem, and the words that he chose, it was very sincere. A lot of us are still in that distance learning format, so not having students in person really affects us.”
Calvillo was Greer’s teacher his sophomore year, and she’s his English teacher again this year. Greer was a frequent visitor to her classroom in pre-pandemic times, a visitor who rarely failed to bring a smile to her face.
Calvillo texted him after the video went up to tell him how proud she was, of how far she’d seen him develop as a writer and as a person.
In many ways, you can see that relationship reflected in Greer’s poem, especially in that last stanza, where a student smiles back at their teacher appreciatively, “all grown.”
“To see that evolution in his confidence and abilities,” Calvillo said, “it was just heartwarming.”