He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded


Nowlan, Alden




At age eleven, the late Canadian poet Alden Nowlan expressed a "desire to be a prophet," and arguably achieves this dream today in his published works. "He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded" depicts a scene in which a guileless woman elicits from a cynical man not just an embrace but also a reflection on his impulse to be part of an embrace. Nowlan's moving poem questions both our motives for helping others and our responses to the deepest human needs.

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The Civically Engaged Reader, eds. Davis & Lynn, (Great Books Foundation, 2006).




Ability and DisabilityConnection and RelationshipImpact and OutcomesLove and CompassionRoles and Boundaries

Big Questions

What does justice for all look like, when considering people with disabilities?How should we regard outcomes we have a hard time measuring?Is it important to set boundaries? Why?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the narrator at this school?
  2. What does the narrator mean when he says that to the audience, the band is “everybody/who has ever appeared on TV”?
  3. If Nowlan's narrator is there to write a story, he quickly learns that he's there for something else—to try and provide help, maybe, and definitely not to do harm (in the form of lying and fondling). What changes him?
  4. Why does the narrator lie to the boy seeking an autograph? Why does he feel ashamed about this?
  5. The boy requesting the autograph is described as “more hopeless than defiant.” What kinds of experiences might have caused him to react this way? Who, in your experience, does this remind you of? Has this ever been you?
  6. What motivated the narrator to send an autograph “signed by somebody/ on the same payroll as the star”? Does this make any difference? Who does this act benefit more: the writer or the boy?
  7. “Then I'll feel less ashamed,” the writer says. Does shame serve a purpose? Is it helpful or harmful here? How do we benefit from shame? Does shame sometimes keep us from doing things we ought to?
  8. What does the young woman want when she rests her head on the narrator's shoulder? Does she “know better?” Do we know that she doesn't know better? What if she weren't retarded – how would that change this moment, and the poem?
  9. What does narrator mean when he says that he is “ignorant/ of the accepted etiquette”? What is the purpose of etiquette? Why couldn't the narrator rely on his instincts in this situation?
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