Mr. President, in our class meeting this morning one of our 9th graders raised her hand. “Well, I was thinking about how wherever I look I see someone like the Kardashians or other celebrities. It’s every where. It just comes into me. And then last night I couldn’t sleep. So I asked my mom to read to me. And she read me the poem, “The Ox Cart Man.” And I was wondering how it has come to be that I know so much about something so dumb and unimportant like the Kardashians but I don’t even know the name of the guy who wrote that poem.”
“The guy is Donald Hall,” I told her. “But why do you know so much about the Kardashians?”
“I don’t know. It’s just everywhere.”
“Who are the Kardashians?” asked Henry, a 7th grader who spends a large part of his time thinking about inventions and lasers.
“Don’t worry about it,” someone called out. “You don’t want to know.”
Someone else answered. “They’re dumb celebrities who’re famous for breaking up with their boy friends and getting DUIs. You read about them in the magazines in the check-out aisle.”
“Oh,” Henry responded, clearly disappointed. I thought to myself: My god, what kind world are we making?
“Do you any of you guys know any car insurance companies?” I asked.
Their hands went up as they shouted: “State Farm! The General! Progressive! Liberty Mutual! Geico!”
Of course, none of them even drive. But clearly the forces of advertising and mass communication have already imprinted them.
“Can any of you say a line from Shakespeare’s plays?” I asked.
Wren tentatively waved her hand.
“‘I challenge you to a battle of the wits,'” I quoted. “‘But I see that you are unarmed.’ That’s a Shakespearian put-down.”
“Very funny, Tal.”
Many years ago at our school the students instituted a policy that every morning one of them would pick out and read a poem to start the day. A number of our students carry around poems in their binders to have ready at a moment’s notice. Some folks feel safe carrying a gun openly. We feel a poem is more useful.
Over time my students begin to learn the difference between common speech and musical speech; the difference between meaningless words and those that come from the soul. They learn about the power of language to express love, anguish, despair, and hope. They learn that truth does not come from advertising slogans, gossip, or 140 character salvos.
So I ask you now: Are you prepared this morning? Did you bring your poem? Do you have a poem you would read to your lover or a child? Do you have one you clutch to your heart, one that you’ll live by, that says the unsayable? Would you stake your life to those words?
I am thinking of my student, who did her homework last night. She is poised at the threshold of adulthood, but still unable to sleep on a Wednesday night. She’s not sure how to quiet her mind.
“Mom, can you read me something?”
“Sure I can, honey.”
She is curled up on the couch by the wood stove. The Kardashians and the tastemakers have gone to their dreams. Now she’s listening to her mother read the poem. She’s thinking about a New Hampshire hill farmer stitching harness, counting seed potatoes, tasting the honey in the combs.