What does it mean to toughen up?
To a young boy bowed over
the steps of empty bleachers –
blood running down his leg –
it means softness will not be tolerated.
It means offering your body
as dodgeball target practice.
It means tripping over your own
shoelaces onto cider blocks.
It necessitates waiting out recess
because five stitches can wait.
Why would you ruin it for everyone else?
You must learn to fortify your emotions.
You must learn that teasing tests your willingness to live.
Your body is fragile because you sit gym out
and prefer to work on pronunciation of sounds.
You don’t have to speak. Remember that sacrifice
means giving up. Strength means knowing
the words to recite and when to bite your tongue,
like when they say -th in: that doesn’t belong;
that wasn’t my fault; thh-anks.
Matthew Gilbert is a recent graduate from the M.A. program in English Literature at East Tennessee State University. He has served as the 2018-2019 editor of the student-based literary journal The Mockingbird. He currently serves as a reader for fiction at Orison Books. He loves the music of written word and the movement and transformation of ideas through the poetic experience. His work has previously appeared in Echoes and Images, The Mockingbird, Red Mud Review, and Delta Poetry Review, and Eunoia Review.