Miss C.’s Poetry Voice

I had the same teacher, Miss C., for both the third and fifth grades. She wasn’t my favorite teacher — she was quite demanding and didn’t have a warm or sympathetic manner. Third grade was a difficult year for me because I was moved from second grade to Miss C.’s third grade class in November, and I had the feeling that she disapproved of the double-promotion and didn’t want me in her class. And fifth grade was a terrible year, because my father was sick and he died during Christmas vacation.

She did give me some good advice, though. In the first few months after my father died, I missed a lot of school. I would get up in the morning and just not feel well enough to go to school. Miss C. kept me after school one day and showed me my attendance record, and told me I needed to stop missing so much school. She said that even if we don’t feel well in the morning, if we make an effort and go off and do our duty to go to school or work, we might find that once we’re there, we feel better. I was doubtful about that, but since I didn’t want her to give me another talking-to, I started making myself go to school every day and she was right, I did feel better. I still have trouble dragging myself out of bed and off to work in the morning, but, thanks to Miss. C., unless I am actually sick, I get up and go, and usually feel just fine once I’m there.

But the thing I remember best about Miss. C. was how much she liked poetry. She read us poems in a slow, dramatic voice, made us copy poems as handwriting exercises, and had us memorize them and recite them to the class.

A lot of her poems were seasonal, like October’s Bright Blue Weather, by Helen Hunt Jackson. I remember sitting at my desk in our classroom on the second floor of the Charles J. Capen School, dutifully copying the poem on composition paper, hearing Miss C.’s poetry voice in my mind:

O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather…

I paused for a moment after writing the last line and looked out the window, and there it was — a dazzling blue October sky! This was a thrilling moment for me, literature and nature coming together. And every October, that phrase sings in my mind, every time the sky is blue and even when it isn’t. I think it’s a beautiful phrase, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated it if Miss C. had not read it to us in her dramatic poetry voice.

But my favorite of the poems she taught us was Wordworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, still one of my favorite poems. She did a great reading of this, dreamily reading the first two lines, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” pausing slightly and then switching to her surprised voice for the next two, “When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils!” There isn’t an exclamation point in the original poem, but that’s how she read it. Every time I see daffodils, I hear her poetry voice in my mind.

I also remember her reading us a psalm every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. Hard to imagine such a thing now, and I don’t remember any other teacher reading from the Bible. Her favorite was Psalm 24, King James Version. The first few lines she delivered in a matter-of-fact fashion:

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.
For he hath founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the floods.

But then she’d switch to dramatic mode to ask the questions, placing emphasis on the word who:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

And then to her teacher voice to clearly state the answer:

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart!

She recited this as if there were an exclamation point, and I always expected her to add, “That’s who!”

Miss C. is no longer living, but I picture her spending eternity on top of the hill of the Lord, standing right next to his throne, inspecting the hands and hearts of incoming souls to decide who shall pass and who should fail. It would be a perfect job for her — she had high standards and knew how to enforce them, and I can’t imagine her ever wanting to rest in peace.

[Edited and reposted from an earlier version]

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