Poetry from the Front: How I survived Poem in your Pocket day

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) the author of the "Poem in My Pocket"

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) the author of the "Poem in My Pocket"

Like a restaurant flailing its death throes before the final bankruptcy hearing, education often uses gimmicks to attract attention. 

The greatest gimmick of all, in my opinion, is the “phony holiday.”  So that schools can find excuses to paper their hallways in swathes of bad drawings and even worse writings, districts often create “holidays” in order to establish a theme for instruction.

Whether or not these holidays existed before, I do not know.  I’ll leave it to the Neighborhood to help with feedback on this. What I do know is that these holidays do not exist outside school walls.

Two “phony holidays” have taken hold in my school.  The first is the “100th day of school,” a time to celebrate a milestone that is not even the midpoint of the school year–that would be about the 91st or 92nd day.   Kindergarteners spelling 100 with painted macaroni.  Second graders making number sentences that have 100 as the answer.  Fifth graders writing essays about why the 100th day of school still sucks and summer couldn’t come fast enough.  Me wishing the whole thing would just go up in a ball of flames 100 feet high.

Then comes a particular day that fills me with loathing.  “Poem in Your Pocket” day was developed by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs in 2002 to culminate April as National Poetry Month.  Designed to promote poetry as a means of expression, it involves students randomly selecting poems they like, sticking them in their pocket, and reading them on demand. 

My principal eats this up: he makes a big show of  reading his poem over the loudspeaker.  It’s usually some sappy drivel about achieving your dreams, overcoming adversity, whatever.  Nevermind that the school goes upside down over this nonsense.  He actually stops students in the hallway, demanding that they produce some rhyme from their clothing.  I’m still waiting for the wiseass who decides to read him something about a gentleman from Nantucket or Venus.

I don’t hate poetry.  Poems are a powerful window into the subconscious, and provide the best summaries of emotion in troubling times.  This whipping out of poems nonsense, though, has to stop.  Few things are accomplished well with a gun to your head.  It was a good thing that my grandmother’s memorial service pre-empted this year’s “holiday.” 

Usually, when I populate my pocket–under duress–I carry along a long, convoluted selection from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman.  Walt always spoke to me, though not to everyone.  The principal stops me at about the 15th line, wondering whether I picked the poem to share about Whitman or to make him look ignorant.   This year, if I was at school, I’d pick World War I poetry.  Wartime doggerel is among my favorite poetry–it’s raw, immediate, timely, and often so to-the-point that it upsets anyone else who hears it. 

I’ll leave you with my selection this year: “Hero” by the British poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,

And folded up the letter that she’d read.

‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke

In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.

She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud

Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

 

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.

He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies

That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.

For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes

Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,

Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

 

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,

Had panicked down the trench that night the mine

Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried

To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,

Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care

Except that lonely woman with white hair.

I read this once with a fifth grade class.  We talked about it for weeks–and we never needed some damn phony holiday to understand.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Poetry from the Front: How I survived Poem in your Pocket day

  1. NRod

    Never quite heard the “100th day” and “Poem in your Pocket” day called “holidays” before. Had they been, I’d be just as irritated I suppose. However gimmick-y, I think working with elementary students requires a hook…a way to engage students. No day off, no idolatry, just bringing math & poetry into their lives creatively… as you did here. Nice poem!

  2. Fantastic poem.

    Being less literate than you and more of a jackass, I’d prob. go with:

    Roses are red
    Violets are blue,
    Some poems rhyme,
    this one doesn’t.

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