“Hope is a thing with feathers, that perches on the soul,” she begins, swaying a little and looking down. Her voice gains strength as she reads the familiar words. Another student snaps a few pictures, and in only twelve lines she is done. With a sigh of relief, amid two dozen clapping hands, she sits down.
On this sunny April day, English 11 students are enacting the year’s second poetry reading. The last happened in chilly November, in a class lit only by the digital orange of a Youtube fire on the projector screen, as we celebrated the rhythmic glory of the Fireside Poets.
Now we’ve reached the Modernists, and in their honor are sitting under the sun, on stark stone steps, munching on the cheap bread on which these penurious poets subsisted at the beginning of last century. Students lounge in the sun, nibbling baguettes and clutching limp photocopies of poems as they await their turn.
“Oh Captain, my Captain,” chants one boy. Two of his classmates jump up in salute. We’re lulled by Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” momentarily forgetting the warmth of daylight as we’re transported to a twilit snowy wonderland. A boy dramatically reads “Phenomenal Woman,” by Maya Angelou. “Does my sexiness upset you?” he reads, and waits for our laughter. Words–whispered, swallowed, proclaimed or queried–fill the spaces between us.
And I think, in the sun, listening to my students each reading two poems (one published and one original), about the ways we spend our time in the classroom. I’m often asked to justify learning certain skills or reading certain books, with the sighed question, “How will this ever help us in real life?”
Though I don’t always say it, my first thought is usually, “Why doesn’t this count as real life?” I’ll acknowledge that some skills, like writing a resume or balancing an equation, will be more useful later than they are now. I would also argue, though, that this particular activity–reading poetry together in the sun–is extremely relevant now and later.
For the future, I hope rather vaguely that my students will be better at public speaking because of this, that the skill it takes to read a poem in front of friends will soften the blow of interviewing for a job with strangers.
Mostly, though, I’m thinking about the present. An English teacher I respect once compared reading literature to eating. She would ask her students if they could remember what they have for dinner on March 7th when they were eight years old. When they replied that they couldn’t, she would say, “But you ate something, right?”
“Probably,” they’d shrug.
“That’s what reading is. Nourishment for your mind. You may not remember everything you read. You may lose it after only a few months or days. But some of it you’ll remember forever. And the rest strengthens your soul and your mind, makes you more whole with every word.”
She said it a long time ago, when I was still a student, discouraged that I didn’t remember everything, even writing that I loved at the time. I’ve forgotten now why The Tempest and Fahrenhiet 451 and the poetry of Marianne Moore once made such deep impressions on me. But they did. And I can’t remember every line of “The Road Not Taken” now, but fragments of it still rise to the surface from time to time. (“Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”)
I look around at my students, listening and silently supportive, wondering if they see it this way. Are they trying to remember everything? Challenging even this moment as they search for its monetary value? Have they yet learned to appreciate beauty that comes and goes in a moment, as quickly as snowflakes or an Emily Dickinson poem?
“No man is an island, entire of itself…”
And we’re linked together as we share poetry on a sunny day, learning not just the words on the page but how to hear, to feel, to question and to see. This is real life, a life for which I’m thankful, today, tomorrow and always.