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I had a teacher in eighth grade named Miss Michaelson. She was a bit long in the tooth and had a jagged helmet of black hair. A big boned woman, she wore dresses which wrapped about her like robes on a Greek statue, the overall impression one of stone resolve. The mention of her name caused a stir of sentiments, from a prickling sensation at the nape to a guttural drop and hushed tones.
I adored her of course. She may be the only teacher I ever bribed, pinching my savings together at the holidays to buy her a scarf, an accessory she often donned. I’m not sure she even used my gift. There are rules today about that sort of thing, like buying affections, worse, grades. I didn’t care.
Michaelson required us to memorize poems. I can feel the sweat in my palms when I think about sitting with her behind the wall dividers, reciting Kipling, worried I would forget a line, get a word wrong, or worse, skip a stanza. Was it “keep your head when all about you” or “keep your head when all around you” or neither? About or around. Maybe it was “while all about you” and into the downward spiral of doom, an age fraught with nerves and acne and body odor. Yet I did it. Recited poems from memory. So did everyone else.
Funny thing happened over the years. At odd times and places, the words would surface, the meaning somehow significant because I finally lived it. An altered version of the final lines of Kipling’s poem “If” was shared at my wedding.
If you can give that ever-fleeting minute
Sixty seconds worth of distance run,
Yours is the world and all that’s in it,
And – what’s more – you’ll be a Man, my Son!
Here are the original lines.
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
A lot of changes, two included ever-fleeting and world. Not unforgiving. Not Earth. You see what Michaelson did to me? I couldn’t enjoy a toast to the groom from my new father-in-law, thinking on the differences. I had smiled at the heartfelt intention but was curious if I remembered wrong.
Isn’t the meaning changed if my husband must fill an ever-fleeting minute instead of an unforgiving one? Looking back at this toast from mid-life I kind of relish the version. The minute and what it stands for, time, is ever-fleeting and is unforgiving, both four syllables. The World as Earth, inhabitable and more expansive. Even the minor changes, to give that minute 60 seconds, versus to fill that minute, as in You dastardly rogue Time, let me give this to you. There! Nice.
After hearing something or memorizing it, it is easier to confuse or misconstrue words. My daughter turns on sub-titles for the television and though it can be distracting, it’s a relief to understand the language when speech is inaudible, or arcane.
This misheard lyric or words is a mondegreen. Scottish writer Sylvia Wright coined the term when she explained that as a child she misheard the lyrics of a Scottish Ballad about the Earl of Moray. One of the lines is “They hae slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green.” And she believed it to be: they hae slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen.
My father used to tell me that he thought God’s name was Howard. He recited the Lord’s Prayer aloud as a young boy. “Our Father who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” This is one of the first mondegreens I ever heard. A child is less familiar with the idea in the phrase “hallowed be thy name” than an actual name. He understands Howard. My father meant it in jest though I was never sure if he had actually thought of God as Howard.
My daughter’s English teacher requires her to memorize and recite poetry in increments, a couple lines a day. When I asked Dr. Gigante about the poetry she wrote me this.
On learning poetry by heart: well, the short answer is that I believe that students should know things instead of just always looking things up, and if they are going to know things, they should know beautiful things. But the longer answer is that I think poems help us to articulate how we feel when important things happen and to feel less alone in the world. I ask students to learn famous poems so that they will recognize and understand references to them in literature and film (and Jeopardy!), but also because those poems are about power and nature and war and death and parenthood and desire, and someday they will be happy to know them. Asking students to learn poems by heart is like sending a promise into the future. (Suzanne Gigante, October 1, 2019)
To know beauty. To know they are not alone. Thank you, thank you. Refreshing. A throwback even, to memorize something and to know something. Poetry for me reveals what is lasting and true. Knowing it by heart helps me find comfort, especially over time and distance.
My daughter seems to like poetry for now. I’m not sure she agrees with me on much and some days we seem at odds on everything. This week I stumbled on a favorite Billy Collins poem and I knew I was not alone. In his own voice, here is the former U.S. Poet Laureate. (video clip below)
When the poet reads his own work with care, there’s less a chance of mondegreens. He knows what he means well enough and it’s likely the listener, or reader will too. One day, my daughter could encounter this poem. Maybe tomorrow or in the year 2050 when she has her own teenage child.
A shout-out to all the teachers out there. They might not have built the Parthenon or composed two symphonies, but they did more than the dishes and clean up their room. They taught me about the beauty and truth in poetry. Thank you, Miss Michaelson.
[Billy Collins audio, To my favorite 17 year old High-school girl]