Committing to Memory

images-3By the time I was in elementary school in Baltimore, the old, early twentieth century method of instruction, memorization and recitation in class, had been replaced by a more kid-friendly approach that combined reading, class discussion, writing answers, and even doing projects connected with our studies, whether they were in science, geography, history, arithmetic, literature, or the arts.

Mrs. Hart was the exception. She made us memorize a poem a month. She loved making us memorize so much, that against my wishes, my mother, a teacher in another public school system, had me transferred from Mrs. Hart’s class to that of a more progressive, creative fourth grade teacher. I wasn’t happy about the change, but what could I do? My mother the educator had spoken, and I must comply.

In the first two months of fourth grade when I was in Mrs. Hart’s class with my two best friends, Judy and Anne, I memorized two poems, “September” (1892)  and” October’s Party.” Although Helen Hunt Jackson and George Cooper were not A-list poets, as a child I enjoyed these seasonal verses. I often think of these lines this time of year, and I wonder if the others in  that  class do, as well. We are scattered all over the country now, and the only one I am still in touch with is Anne, who lives in Washington State, 3,072 miles from my house to hers, a 45 -hour drive, if either of us were ever crazy enough to do it.

La Rue Hart had  a head full of wavy,  reddish brown hair, and she embraced makeup. She wore too much rouge–red, uneven  blotches of the stuff on her cheeks. She smelled strongly of perfume, and rumor had it that she was–shocking to us–divorced. She could have been any age between forty and sixty. She was slender, she wore impressively high heels, and her clothes were always brightly colored–reds, oranges, golds.

My new teacher, Mrs. Wells, was a stout woman of about forty, with Mediterranean skin and a no-nonsense manner in the classroom. Separated from my pals back in Mrs. Hart’s class at the other end of the building, I immersed myself in my school work, and tried to ignore the obnoxious misbehavior of Larry, a boy who had been “left back” three times, it was said, and had already been hit head-on by the puberty train. Mrs. Wells kept a firm grip on a class with many unruly boys,  in contrast to  Mrs. Hart,who always seemed on the  verge of running out of our noisy classroom to the teacher’s lounge for a smoke.

Perhaps my mother made the right decision. I learned much in Mrs. Wells’ class,  and I got used to seeing my best friends only at Brownie Scout meetings on Tuesdays after school.

But I missed the poems.  And this time of year, I hear them in my head, in what I imagine to be the voice of the young girl I was many years ago.

SEPTEMBER

by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)

HE golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.
 
The gentian’s bluest fringes
Are curling in the sun;
In dusty pods the milkweed
Its hidden silk has spun.
 
The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook.
 
From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes’ sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies.
 
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather,
And autumn’s best of cheer.
 
But none of all this beauty
Which floods the earth and air
Is unto me the secret
Which makes September fair.
 
‘T is a thing which I remember;
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget.
Reprinted from Poems. Helen Jackson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1892.

One thought on “Committing to Memory

  1. Lynne, thanks for great memories associated with both of those poems. My mother was a third grade teacher and she taught her classes those poems in Sept. and Oct. I remember her reciting them to me as a child and at the end of the summer when the goldenrod turned yellow! In those days of the 50’s and 60’s, she mimeographed them so that the children in her class could take them home to share with their families.

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