A 10 O’clocker’s Words of Wary (Poetry by Jessica Holter)

A 10 O’clocker’s Words of Wary (Poetry by Jessica Holter)

Certain words make me nervous

like nervous

which creeps down my spine and spreads through my body

infecting all my senses, as nerves are created to do


As a child, I was a 10 O’clocker

Too smart for whatever was being taught

from eight O’clock in the morning, until the first recess

I spent my mornings at The Electric Company

assuming it was somewhere near Sesame Street

where they seemed to have a lot of things

that did not belong there, like me


“One of these things is not like the others
One of these things just doesn't belong”


They would sing

“Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?


Looking back,

I learned a lot about labels on this

puppeteered road to ABCs and 123s


I would check in on Miss Piggy

and her unrequited love for the frog

She was desperate in the type of way

the kids today call thirsty

I did not know any women like that

because I did not know my mother well yet

but that is another story

about a White woman

who gave her Black daughter away


Sesame Street had a funny couple

Bert was so uptight, like almost everyone I knew

Ernie was so annoying, like me

He was a master at

button-pushing passive-aggression

which was not a new idea in the 70’s


The Count had the kind of swag

my big sister’s boyfriends had

when they came calling

He seemed familiar in that way

Plus, I liked counting, on account of

I like to be right and numbers are quite precise

As compared to words, whose rules can be contrary


Poor Oscar. I really felt bad for Oscar

It is with him that I most identified

Not because he lived in a trashcan

He seemed to be very happy there

But because the Sesame Street community

was, in my mind, that often searched

for quiet time, in a house with 5 other foster kids

Intrusive of his privacy and judgmental of his choices

They just walked all up on his trashcan home

Making him come out, calling him a grouch


“Of course, he’s a grouch, you keep disturbing him!”

My momma heard me say to the program one day


“Girl, you done been here before,” she said

Though I did not get it then, I knew how to pretend

to comprehend what she meant


Eventually Sesame Street lost me

for the judgment and drama


But at The Electric Company

It was all about father figures and words for me

every day I was carried away by sounds, words

and a smart Black man with a massive vocabulary

with rhyming songs, sung by people

who looked like people I knew, loved, or wanted to

people who shared the label that defined me

people who belonged in my mind

people entitled by some distant bloodline

to be involved in my thoughts

people who had the rhythm and vibrations

to make me comprehend what they were saying


This was an impressive thing to a foster child like me

So, I became a “Melody Matron” “An Easy Reader”

“Young Gifted & Black” “Moving on, in a new way”

lead by a man I secretly thought was my father


Morgan Freeman was a young man then

hooking me on phonetics

Socking me with The Knock Knock Rock

as Mel Mounds, a super cool DJ

who wore an Afro and dark shades

and smiled so bright he lit me up

They used language and wore clothing

I recognized in my own neighborhood

Bell-bottoms and headbands, and I knew,

whatever I was missing all those mornings at school

was definitely not this cool


Sometimes, they did this profile shot of

Freeman and a woman, facing one another

sounding out words


“help” (pause 3 beats)

“full” (pause 3 beats)



By grade three I was an award-winning orator

and a prized possession of the

Gifted and Talented Education Program

for exceptional kids in the ghetto


My video father helped form

me into to the writer I am now

Making me a lover of words

even words that make me wary

and an observer of people

even those whose constitutions are a little scary

You can learn a lot about people

from the words they choose to use


Words too, affect the nervous system


My friend Ami the Yogi

who does not speak as often as most people I know

Sometimes wishes aloud for

the capacity to commune without them


My friend Sonni loves the term overstand

And chooses it over understand

which suggests you stand under something

Some idea or program perhaps


When I consider the meaning of the word program as

“a set of related measures or activities

with a particular long-term aim”

I wonder of the long-term aim of tell lie vision


It was 1977, 4th grade

Roots was released to critical acclaim

And made the single most impactful blow

to my self-esteem with language and visuals

I cannot unhear or unsee

It was a savage story that I did not need to know

in these most impressionable years as my confidence formed


The sight of Black folks on their knees was fictional to me

It was like they took all the filters off Planet of the Apes

to say exactly what they meant

But see, my mother was a White woman

Helpless and in need of overseeing, by many accounts

It was strong and prayerful Black folks

who saved me, when she left me in the street


“Lord have mercy, what did that woman do to you?”

Jesus used to hear about me a lot in prayer circles

of matriarchs who did not look to books

to learn how to love a child


Pray is a loaded word, as powerful as a gun

You can’t just let any ole’ tongue

Work their magic over you

In the end you will find

It is better to deal with your own soul

least you become as prey

I am certain it is no coincidence

Pray and prey sound the same


I suppose we are all at the mercy of something

time, fate, folly and circumstance

but without power, we leave our lives to goodwill and chance


You can wait for God to deliver you from your enemies

but it is you who must deliver you

from the confines of your own perception of yourself

if we only knew how great We are

but we are not the subject of His song

your consciousness is so vast

I am touching you now, and you can feel it

We choose to look outside ourselves for answers

Thanking and complaining to God about things we willed


Mercy is an expensive word that misrepresents itself

It is cloaked in the promise of compassion

Compassion is a sexy word that lures you in

with phonetics that speak to our

natural connection and sexual nature


But a cry for mercy

the expectation of compassion

is an admission of powerlessness

For, only when power is surrendered

will you ever find this tricky little noun


I mean, you could just do the right thing

Without guilt, you have nothing to fear

For when you die, your energy will still be here

Perhaps trapped in a body

fresh flesh for new programming

Passed lifetimes


Or perhaps

you will be ready to be free


by Jessica Holter

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