I’m curious as to whether or not students have to memorize poetry these days. Perhaps it’s a lost art like penmanship, but I can’t think how lucky kids are today if they’re exempt from memorizing long-winded poems.
If I’d been a good memorizer, I would’ve considered acting. While I’m sure such a skill serves some greater purpose, I don’t think today’s world provides opportunities for gentlemen in dinner jackets to stand around our drawing rooms to spontaneously break into stanzas of Whitman, Wordsworth and Longfellow. At least such things do not take place in my drawing room.
I was traumatized by memorization in school, and it began in seventh grade. On the first day, I arrived in my English class at 12:20 after an institutional lunch that had left me queasy. At that time, the class was called Language Arts, and it was taught by a swarthy old woman who looked like Burl Ives in a wig and pantsuit. Both, by the way, were Confederate gray. We did not know that it was to be her final year in teaching, but had I not been a timid and frightened seventh-grader, I would’ve slipped her a note suggesting that she hang up the gloves by Christmas break.
Mrs. J. had a sort of speech impediment that suggested her Fixodent wasn’t working on her uppers, yet she insisted on reading us her class rules. Between my carb crash and the fact that her classroom in August was two degrees cooler than a pizza oven, I was ready for a nap, something that she expressly forbade.
After her litany of unacceptable behavior, she polled us to see where we stood in regard to grammar. “Who can tell me the eight parts of speech?” I suspect everyone could, as we were a generation raised on Schoolhouse Rock. We could sing every tune about adverbs, conjunctions, phrases and nouns. We knew how bills became law, and we could multiply like a savant. However, none of us had ever heard nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. called “The Eight Parts of Speech.” The room was silent.
It was silent until Mrs. J. shrieked with her dentures clacking that we’d have to go back to the very basics of grammar, and once she found out who our elementary school teachers were, she would be sending strongly worded letters to each of them, informing them about the disservice they had done us. English handbooks then flew off the shelves, and even though one mouthy girl tried to explain that we’d already had this information once we had understood what she’d asked, there was no turning back.
“Young lady, none of you knew what the eight parts of speech were a few minutes ago, and now you tell me that you do? I don’t believe you, so we’ll start from the beginning.”
I feel that much of that year was nothing but a review of previously covered material. The only new things were poetry and craft time. By the second week of school, everyone was going around calling her senile. Whether she had early dementia or had not had a smooth voyage through the menopause, something was messing with her arterial flow. She was known to make assignments and never call for them, and she was also guilty of “chasing a rabbit” in one class session, taking complete leave of the unit’s topic for weeks.
When we studied Dickens, she explained A Christmas Carol was written in staves, and we had to read aloud the first part in class. I don’t recall getting through the entire work as when we read about Christmas Past, she was suddenly reminded of gumball trees. Our assignment was to go home and find a big twig that had multiple small branches. Our fathers were supposed to paint it white, assuming that everyone still had fathers who could and would do that sort of thing. When we brought it back to class, she helped us mount them, and we spent a week forcing gumdrops onto the ends of the branches. I thought the assignment as stupid at the time as I do now. The only good thing was that it killed another week between Thanksgiving and winter break.
Maybe she suffered from multiple personalities, but I never found one that I liked. I could deal with the docile granny who read out the recipe for the perfect bath, and I could feel secure with the sports nut who made us read a story about football great Fran Tarkington in the Reader’s Digest even though hearing a classroom full of near-illiterates take turns with the paragraphs had me thinking about running through the room’s glass-block wall without a helmet. However, the person she became when she was upset was the one that had me quaking in my boots.
“Aw-right clash,” she began one February afternoon, her dentures clacking furiously. “It’s time to start reciting Wreck of the Hesperus.” Of course, with those ill-fitting dentures, she told us it was time to “shtart re-shiting “Weck of the Heshper-ush.” It was as if Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the cat were speaking simultaneously.
I would’ve paid a dollar to hear her recite those opening lines: It wush the shooner Heshper-ush/That shailed the wintry she;/And the shkipper had taken hish little daughter/To bear him company.
Actually, I would’ve paid any amount I had to get out of class that day. At that point, I had not missed a single day of seventh grade, and I can only recall in passing that we had discussed Longfellow’s tragic poem one afternoon in the previous semester. I know we had spoken of the daughter’s flaxen hair, and she’d probably discussed hawthorn buds. No doubt that botanical mention launched a vegetal rant that lasted for three days, which probably explains why no one ever remembered having been assigned that fossil of verse.
There were fewer than five guys in the class, and we had the better part of all the school’s mean girls in there. In an attempt to stimulate our young minds, Mrs. J. was constantly rearranging the seating. At this time, we were in a circle around the room, and she started with the girl on her left. At least four months had passed since the previous discussion had taken place about this ode, and there were numerous events that had distracted us, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, winter break, snow days and Valentine’s. Not to mention that if the assignment had ever been made, it had been made in a previous semester, grades for which, had already been recorded.
“I’m appalled with you schtudents!!! When I make an a-shinement, I expect to re-sheave the re-shpect I de-sherve. I gave you four days!” Apparently she had given us four months, and the only thing that kept me from throwing up was seeing the terror on everyone else’s faces as we sat in that circle of desks. No one had recalled the assignment, and most probably hadn’t recalled the earlier discussion of the poem. However, she was hearing none of our pleas, just as she had refused to listen to the protests about reviewing the Eight Parts of Speech.
“Tomorrow! We will begin reshitashuns. Be prepared! Now shpend the resht of the clash familiarishing your shelves with Weck of the Heshper-ush!” We shook in silence as if we had narrowly escaped the gallows. I would have said narrowly escaped the fate of the skipper’s daughter, but none of us had read that far. Oh, to hear Mrs. J. recite those final four stanzas:
Her wattling shrouds, all sheathed in eyesh,/With the mashts went by the board;/Like a veshel of glash, she shtove and shank,/Ho! ho! the breakersh roared!
At daybreak, on the bleak she-beach,/A fisherman stood a gashed,/ To she the form of a maiden fair,/Lashed closh to a drifting mashed.
The shalt she was froshen on her breaths,/The shalt tears in her eyes;/And he shaw her hair, like the brown she-weed,/On the billowsh fall and rishe.
Such was the weck of the Heshper-ush,/In the midnight and the show!/Chrisht shave us all from a death like thish,/On the reef of Norman’sh Woe!
I wasn’t laughing that night. Neither of my parents wanted to hear the facts, as the teacher had made an assignment, and I had no choice but to memorize. After the evening meal, I took turns cramming and reciting in front of them. I knew from the start that memorization under pressure was almost impossible, and if the subject matter was about some old boat and a foolish sea captain, there was no hope.
Arrival at school the following morning found the mean girls cloistered in an alcove as they mumbled verses and stanzas like a religious order at their morning prayers. Those of us who shared first period prayed that the teacher was ill so we could coach each other during study hall, but we weren’t so lucky. Lunch was the only time I had to go over my insecure lines, and the best we could do was pray that Mrs. J. had gotten amnesia again. That would buy us a few days.
“Clash, we’ll start on my left and shircle to the right. Let’s begin re-shiting with Tereesha.” Teresa, with her long red hair and freckled face, was one of the mean girls, and she was on the spot. I’d been waiting to see her squirm ever since I’d met her in August, and she began to croak out those opening verses. Most of us had managed to memorize half-way down, but my guess was that no one would be able to start in the middle and get to the end. Thankfully, Mrs. J. wasn’t going to play the game that way. We were all going to have to recite from beginning to end in order to prove to her that we’d done what we’d been told.
Fortunately, that wreck of a poem is so damned long that we got through only four or five shaky readings before the bell rang. Most of us were getting an additional night to learn the poem. When we returned on Thursday, those who had survived the trial by fire were relieved, even though no one had come through perfectly. They were happy with Bs or Cs or whatever the old lady was giving them for their feeble attempts. I, too, just wanted to get through with a passing grade. It mattered not if I were perfect.
Class began again, and she had miraculously remembered where she had left off at the end of our last session. Katrina and Tracey fared better than their best friends from the day before, and Mrs. J. seemed to feel that she had succeeded. Two more recited, including Twyla and Vicky, and the bell rang. I was getting a third night! I would have it down, and I would be brilliant. I would come back on Friday, and I would get through it. What luck!
I returned to school confident that I wouldn’t confuse the “Oh Father!” stanzas. I was going to get this. I don’t recall what we did in class all morning, but I was ready for fourth period. Bring on that wretched wreck!
“Clash, today we begin a new unit on reading. We’re going to have a book fair!” A hand was raised. “Yes, Tereesha?”
“Isn’t the rest of the class going to recite their poems?”
“Pay attention! We’re finished with poetry. We’re moving on to a reading unit and getting ready for the book fair. We’ve a lot to do, so pay attention and don’t interrupt!”
I was saved by her memory slip, and to this day, I’ve never recited a word of poetry in public.
© 2014 by Patrick Brown