“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade”

“You live you learn.” — Alanis Morissette

In today’s poem, we meet Mrs. Nelson who teaches her fourth grade students some valuable life lessons. In between long division and the proper use of adverbs, she shares how to find meaning in pumping gas, or how to quiet a busy mind at the end of the day. If only we could learn essential lessons like these in elementary school.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

Brad Aaron Modlin

Listen to Padriag O’Tuama read “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” here. His voice is mesmerizing.

What I admire about this poem is that by suggesting we can teach nine-year-old children some life lessons that are beyond their age, it helps us think about the many lessons that can’t be taught in a classroom — the ones we must learn on our own through life experience.

What life lessons did you have to learn on your own? I’m still learning the hard lesson of letting go — letting go of loved ones, of ideas about what I thought my life would be like at a given age, and even letting go of shoes I cherish but have kept for too long.

Who are the Mrs. Nelsons in your life – the kind, gentle souls who help you learn the tough lessons?


“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” by Brad Aaron Modlin from Everyone at This Party Has Two Names, 2016.  Copyrighted material used for educational purposes.

Photo: Karl Duffy, “Accepting a Fundamental Aloneness,” Mindfulbalance, 2011.


  1. Fabulous poem. Can you imagine what a better world this would be if we taught all 4th graders a little “Thich Nhat Hanh philosophy” like dear Mrs. Nelson?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are my Mrs. Nelson whether you realize it or not. You are always helping me. A gallon of 409, a S**t that I knit hat, a business card — anything I ask for, you are there for me. A mini mom. She would be proud of you, and dad would think you are doing a good job of “taking care of Didi.” oxoxo

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The poem reading is mesmerizing for sure (listened to it 3 times so far!). This poem somehow feels like like a cozy blanket that wraps around you. “The English lesson was that I am is a complete sentence” particularly stood out to me. A lesson I have been learning over the past couple of years is realizing that I am in control of my choices – whatever I do, say, or think is my choice. It has been liberating in many ways.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Isn’t his voice something? Happy you enjoyed it and the poem! Thank you for sharing a lesson you’ve been learning. I imagine that must be super liberating to realize this about having control of choices!

      Liked by 1 person

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