Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Morning Thanks--English Class

Even in my dotage, I'd like to believe I was never as schoolmarmish as the old woman at the heart of things here; but I know what's inside this Robin Chapman poem straight from this morning's Writers Almanac. I know it inside and out because I lived it on both sides of the that podium up front.

Twelfth grade reading lists stretched out
as endless as the sentences we diagrammed,
as orderly as the outlines for our senior essays-
"Humanism in England in the Fourteenth Century"
I think I wrote about, cobbling facts together
about Erasmus and the Church, forgetting
those were plague years,

Cobbled together term papers?--I wrote 'em, then read 'em by the thousands. I remember one, way back when, on the Scarlet Letter, a novel I hadn't read and didn't have the heart or time to wade through. I went to an out-of-town library to get something fresh, did a Cliff's Notes thing on Hester Prynne, zipped through what I could cull from an index page or two, and hammered out a paper. Probably got a B. Should have been much worse.

And yet, in my forty years of wandering through the classroom wilderness, I don't know that I taught any other novel as often as Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and loved it every last time I read through it, loved it more than any of the kids in front of me did, I'm sure. Truth is, I could read it again today and love it some more--so dark with secret sin, so treacherously Calvinistic.

And there's more to this Robin Chapman poem:

and Henry David
Thoreau’s pithy quotes, marching to a different
drummer, hooked me for a solitary ramble
of Walden, not knowing he’d dined every night
with Emerson and Alcott;

I wonder how many others were hooked on some bizarre 19th century abolitionist transcendentalist madly chasing Oversouls. I was. My first year of teaching, I was naive enough to believe I could make Henry Waldo Emerson a holograph in rural Wisconsin. And I didn't do badly. I remember lit up eyes. In graduate school I learned Thoreau regularly marched off to town to sponge meals. So much for purity.

But no matter, even today. The world would be a better place if this week especially we all spent quality time alone at Walden Pond.

and our teacher
always turned to us with hope, searching
for some sign that we’d found a spark,
an engaged liveliness, in all those endless
marching words--her eyes lit up, her thin hair
frizzed, her faith in us fixed,

No kidding. I had no hair to frizz, but when I think of how greatly I believed in them, those kids in desks, I can't stop grinning. I see some of them once in a while, kids I once had in class, and feel strange, as if once upon a time we were lovers. They don't know how much hope I invested in a single spark of engaged liveliness.  
Teaching was a good life.

And then, this marvel--all that faith, Robin Chapman says,

stirring fugitive regret in our adolescent gaze,
preoccupied with who to ask to the Swankette Ball
and who to sit with at the Friday football game
(whom, she’d certainly have made us say).

That's how the poem ends, in Ms. Frizzy's dizzy-ness.

I don't care. I don't care how little that schoolmarm's soulful regard for them actually meant to kids obsessed with what they were going to say at their lockers, or do that afternoon in the gym, or behave that night on a couch. I don't care how incidental Walden was to their storming teenage passions. I really don't.

And neither would Ms. Frizzy if this morning she'd read little Robin Chapman's "English Class." All she needs to do is to see it on the page, this poem by her ex-student, and she'll swear her transcendental passion wasn't just blowing in the wind.

I'd like to tell Ms. Frizz this: that if she can't read the poem her ex-student wrote about her, I did, and that I loved it for her, for that old schoomarm, loved it in the way I'm guessing both of us once upon a time loved them.

Life is good.


ronvdm said...

Chapman also seems to have placed Erasmus in the wrong century.

Anonymous said...

"I don't care. I don't care how little that schoolmarm's soulful regard for them actually meant to kids obsessed with what they were going to say at their lockers, or do that afternoon in the gym, or behave that night on a couch. I don't care how incidental Walden was to their storming teenage passions. I really don't."

Your comment regarding 'teenage passions' reminded me of a recent exchange between Senator Gillibrand and General Mattis during his confirmation hearing on capitol hill.

"Gillibrand asked Mattis if openly serving gay servicemembers are undermining U.S. forces. He said that he believes the U.S. must stay focused on a military that’s so lethal that it would be the worst day for enemies on the battlefield. I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” he added."

It is interesting to observe how often extraneous issues are rear their ugly head and try to side-track or divert us from our true mission. Sex seems to be a big culprit.

Anonymous said...

DELETE "are" in the previous post...

should read....extraneous issues rear their ugly head...