Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Longfellow, Part 2

I'm trying to remember how--and why--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) wandered back into my classroom and stayed there. Was it while I was still teaching at Harmon Middle School in Aurora (retired: January 1997)? I don't think so. I just looked back through some of my old Harmon files and did not find any indication that I'd had kids read and/or memorize anything by Longfellow.

So I'm pretty sure it began when I returned to teaching in the fall of 2001 at Western Reserve Academy. I taught juniors there--and junior year meant American literature (plus Hamlet, of course, that great American Hero). By that time I had already embraced firmly the idea of the value of memorization of literary works and passages. Although memorization had, in some quarters, fallen into disfavor among educators (some common phrases in publications were "mindless memorization" and "empty rote learning"--that sort of thing), I'd become a Believer.

In my own life I'd learned the joy of knowing famous poems, famous lines. Sometimes, students would complain that they would never remember what they were memorizing, and I always said: "That's totally up to you." For we do remember things we want to remember, things that mean something to us. As I've written here before, I've memorized some 130 poems and literary passages. But they do not stay in my head without some help. I review them continually--every day I "do" a portion of them in my head (while I'm walking to the coffee shop, riding the exercise bike)--and so, for the nonce, they seem to have decided to stay for a while in memory. Later, they'll move out, I know. Everything does ...

I'd also committed myself to teaching American literature in chronological fashion--hitting the biggest names and texts I could. My reasoning? I figured if kids don't read/hear about some of these things in high school, it's unlikely--unless they become undergraduate English majors (very few do)--they'll ever have the chance to read these folks--or learn about their lives--later on. WRA was sort of ... relaxed ... at the time. We English III teachers shared some "summer reading" texts and four other titles during the school year (one per marking period), but the rest of what we did was up to us.

I'd committed myself, as well, to the "old-fashioned" biographical/historical approach to the works. University English departments had sprinted away from that approach during the long era of "new criticism," but I remained traditional--intransigently so. When we got ready to read a writer--just about any writer--I spent some days talking about his/her life and times, usually with a PowerPoint I'd assembled, a PowerPoint that featured pictures Joyce and I had taken on our "vacation" trips to see the homes (and graves!) of famous American writers--and to see, as well (whenever possible), the places they'd written about. I know that Jack London was not thinking of just any old lake when he mentioned the Yukon's Lake Bennett in his work; I know that Mary Shelley had seen (and been stunned by) the Mer de Glace near Chamonix, France, during her "Frankenstein summer" ( in her novel, she sets a key scene on that glacier); and on and on. I figured that the more I could help students "see" the work--and to understand the writer--well, the better it would be for them.

I also realized that with other teachers--in their three other years at WRA--students would get other views, other approaches to literature ... and that's a good thing. A really good thing. There is more than one road into the vast public park of literature; the more ways the kids know, the better readers they become.

Anyway (sermon over), I taught American literature at WRA from 2001-2011 (with some interruptions due to prostate cancer issues), and I had the kids memorize three literary passages each of our four marking periods. Among the early pieces I required were two by Longfellow (the kids could pick the one they wanted to learn): "The Arrow and the Song" ...

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend. 

... and "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls":

THE TIDE rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.        5
Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.        10
The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

I learned both of them--for a couple of reasons. For one, I like memorizing, and, for another, I wanted to show the kids that I was willing to do the same work I was asking them to do. (I often did this throughout my career--not just memorizing but writing and, of course, reading assignments.)

Memorizing was easy for some students. I remember one young woman at WRA who would always put it off to the last possible second. Once, I saw her in Morning Meeting (how we began M-W-F at WRA) memorizing a long poem by Sharon Olds. When I graded her paper, I couldn't believe it. Flawless. No way I could have done that in the, oh, twenty minutes it had taken her.

But it was not easy for others--and for some it was nigh impossible. But I never felt too guilty about it: I asked students to do a wide variety of things in class, knowing that relying too much on one type of activity would elevate some kids, doom others. So I tried to spread the joy, spread the pain.

Once I started teaching Longfellow, I started researching his life and work, as well. I traveled hither and yon, collected things (I have an autograph!), read much of what he did, read the few recent biographies. And in one of them, I learned about the horrible deaths of his wives (horror happened twice for him), and I learned about his gorgeous poem "The Cross of Snow," which I will write about next time.


1 comment:

  1. Interesting perspective. When the English teacher and I the History teacher consolidated our work into a 2 hour Humanities course for 12th graders, I learned a lot about old and new ways of teaching literature...:)