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The Joy of Poetry Transcript
Mrs. Robinson was my sixth grade teacher. She was a tall, raw-boned woman, who called herself not Martha Robinson–in fact, I didn’t know her first name until I was long an adult–but Mrs. Barnette Robinson, in memory of her husband who had been shot down over Germany in 1944. She was the sort of teacher who would say definitely, “You can but you may not,” when we asked if we could go to the bathroom for the fifth time. But it wasn’t Mrs. Robinson’s penchant for correct speech that won me to her forever. What did that was two things. The first was that, whereas until now I’d been almost entirely invisible to teachers, she saw me, she truly saw me, and the second was that she made it clear that she loved poetry, not for what it could do for her, like win her something or make her famous, but for her life.
Mrs Robinson ran her class by setting up at the beginning of the week one poem, one painting, and one piece of classical music. We’d then spend part of the week learning about them. She’d chosen the poems, she told me years later, by asking her friends what their favorite poems were, but she might as well have used a little book published in the 1930s called 101 Famous Poems because most of them were in it. I found that out only when I grew up, but my friend Rufus, who grew up in rough and tumble Gloucester, used to memorize poems from it while she and her mother folded the laundry and, to this day, she can still come up with “If” or “Abou Ben Ahdem” or “Invictus,” all of which figured in Mrs. Robinson’s class.
Now Mrs. Robinson’s thrust wasn’t memorization but appreciation. She used to read poems to us as if she could taste them. Towards the end of our sixth grade year, she decided to ask the parents in to hear each of us recite. Which poem we recited, she left to us. Most people chose short ones; “Ozymandius,” at 14 lines, was about average. But I was in such romantic love with poetry that I memorized The Highwayman, and, if it weren’t for copyright restrictions, I’d do it for you right now because I still know every single word. In fact, when my plane hits turbulence, I recite it to myself, and it keeps me from being afraid. In this National Poetry Month, I’d like to put my word in for every teacher out there who has made children’s eyes shine by her joy in poems– and especially, for the gift you’ve given me, which is greater than any gift I can imagine, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.