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On Memorizing Poems

Author Lola Haskins
Air Date 4/12/2006
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On Memorizing Poems Transcript

Because I went to elementary school in a convent, most of my teachers were nuns. But we also had a few lay teachers, one of whom was called Mrs. Archer. She came on Mondays to teach us elocution, which she approached by assigning a poem that each of us would have to recite in front of the class the following week. She used to coach us in how to do it. I can still see her ringful hands conducting “Up The Airy Mountain,” which was written by someone named William Allingham. It went “UP the airy mountain, DOWN the rushy glen. We daren’t go a-hunting for fear of little men. Wee folk, good folk, trooping all together.” Well, not SUCH good folk because they stole little Bridget, and, when she got away from them seven years later, they took her back and kept her forever. Of course she had died of sorrow by then, but the whole idea of those little men used to keep me up at night.

Making us memorize wasn’t all Mrs. Archer did. After all of us had finished reciting (we didn’t all; some kids would regularly break down in the middle), she would have the class vote on who had done the best job. And, since she gave the student who got the most votes a prize, usually a holy medal, a lot of us took this recital thing very seriously. One morning, Mrs. Archer announced that next week’s prize was something special–a cross that glowed in the dark. I wanted that cross. The night before the contest, I went to bed imagining the faint glow the cross would emit from its place on the knick-knack self where I kept my collection of tiny Chinese horses.

I don’t remember now what the poem was that week, but I do remember practicing it at home using my very best expressions, and dramatically varying the pace and volume a la Mrs. Archer. Monday, I put on my school uniform in a flurry. I spent recess sitting on a wall because I was afraid I’d fall down on the playground, and, when it finally came time for Mrs. Archer’s class, my heart was beating so loudly I could hardly hear. I got through the recital, though, and then we put our heads down on our desks. “All for Lustre, raise your hands,” Mrs. Archer said. “Now, all for Lola.” I voted for myself– out of longing, not because I thought I deserved to win. I could hear the chalk tallying the votes, then the swish of the eraser. I could have died at that moment. I’m still driven by desire these days, but, for many years, it’s sent me out to make things, and I don’t really enjoy competition any more. But how can I not feel tender toward that beautiful, fierce child, as she lay in bed that night, not wanting to close her eyes, as the cross that had gathered light to itself all day glowed among the horses on her shelf.

Posted in Poetry, Stories