In rural Lemhi County, fifth and sixth graders were taught together in the same classroom by the same teacher, Mr. Harris. In 1973, there might have been around twenty-five total fifth and sixth graders. The grades were segregated to two sides of the classroom. The grades had their own appropriate assignments for basic subjects, but some interchange existed, to the good of all. For example, the read-aloud, always held after lunch and always looked forward to with eagerness, was of course shared by all students.
Hearing the stories was the best part of the school curriculum. Many, many of the short stories read came from one of the teacher’s favorite authors, O. Henry, a writer who caused the students to think and use their minds to concentrate on the storyline. Mr. Harris also read the “Little Britches” series by Ralph Moody. That literature could bring the students close to tears of sadness or hysterical laughter. The students’ minds had a clear picture of Little Britches sampling the fermented juices and his drunken hilarity.
During reading time, the students were allowed to take out notebooks to draw or write in. Sometimes covert communication took place and the reading wasn’t attended to, but more often the paper and pencil provided a needed outlet for the boys and girls. A therapeutic activity combined with the therapy of being read to. Some students needed “down time” and could be found with eyes closed and head resting on arms. Other young learners received the words with attentive gladness. They knew the joy of library books already and were eager for more words.
The other significant encounter with literature and the beauty of the spoken word came with the poetry Mr. Harris brought to the class. A regular part of the day was spent with poems: reading silently in English books, listening to the teacher read and recite poems, memorizing assigned poems, and reciting memorized poems in front of the entire class. The teacher modeled the proper way to give a reading of poetry — things such as how to introduce a poem and how to pronounce the names of poets, how to read with expression and text emphasis, breathing and pausing at the right moments for maximum effect. Years and years later, the thought of the poems studied still could bring a thrilling chill. Mr. Harris was in a class by himself when it came to reciting poetry. He possessed a resonant and carrying voice that sent a message right to the center of one’s being. The look of his eyes and their seeming ability to see into a soul could be felt when he recited poetry. One of the first poems learned was “Eldorado” by Edgar Allen Poe. The poem went something like this: “Gaily bedight! A Gallant knight, in sunshine or in shadow, had journeyed long, singing a song, in search of Eldorado…” Not a few students jumped in their chairs at the first two words. Afterwards, pairs of students sat in the hall outside reading these stirring phrases and helping each other memorize them.
Later, all the students had a chance to show off poetry recitation skills on “Eldorado,” with varying degrees of skill and perfection. The class heard several other poems by Poe: “The Raven” and “The Bells.” All looked forward to learning “The Charge of the Light Brigade” when they got to sixth grade. They knew it was coming. That information got passed down from Mr. Harris’ former students. They probably heard bits and pieces of the phrases out on the playground. Some may have heard about it from older siblings. Learning “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was the high point of the poetry unit. It was a rite of passage, and no one would be denied that experience, so help them! Perhaps the children in my sixth grade class in 1973 would have enjoyed the words of Tennyson’s classic poem that much more if they had known this was to be the last year any sixth grader in would recite “The Light Brigade” and the last year Mr. Harris would teach.
Why do we take such comfort from expressing ourselves in the language of words? Joyce Sidman, recent winner of the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, observed: “We speak to send messages to the world. We chant for what we want, bless what we like, lament what we’ve lost. When angry, we curse; when in love, we sing. We have always done this. Since earliest human history…we’ve chanted poems and songs to help win battles, bring rain (or make it stop), bless journeys, and ward off evil. We filled our lives with poetry from morning till night…. Why else would we pray, sing, or write? Finding phrases to match the emotion inside us still brings an explosive, soaring joy.”
I believe in the strength and power of words to change lives. Undoubtedly you would agree. And it is plainly evident in our path of discipleship. From fervent testimonies shared in houses of worship to profound and revelatory counsel from prophets during General Conference to the peace and comfort taken from reading holy scripture — all bring us hope and understanding. A strong theme in the Book of Mormon is the keeping and preserving of records. One example that continues to give me pause begins in the book of Omni. Mosiah, when he found a separate group of people in the land of Zarahemla, marveled at the corruption of their language because they had brought no records with them. But even more tragic, “they denied the being of their Creator” (Omni 1:17). Though both groups had ventured forth from a similar land and originally shared a language, those people failed to bring their written words and scriptures, consequently losing the clarity and structure of their language and sadly losing their relationship to God.
Not long after, King Benjamin causes his sons to “be taught in all the language of [their] fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies which had been spoken by the mouths of their fathers, which were delivered them by the hand of the Lord…that [they] might read and understand of His mysteries” (Mosiah 1:2, 5). The words of King Benjamin are as beautiful and powerful and moving today as they were when he first spoke them.
Great teachers inspire us as do great words. Because we are always in a state of learning, forgetting and learning again, our need for great words and teachers is perennial. I like an expression of Mary Oliver: “If you say if right, it helps the heart to bear it.” And lastly, here is piece of poetry in tribute to Mr. Harris and the many fine teachers we look to.
I loved my chair — next to the window,
which was there if I needed it.
I loved the odd, crabbed hush in the room
as we slumped and settled in our seats.
I loved the quiet shift that happened — how the air brightened, expanded,
began to hum — as you slipped in,
wild hair and rumpled sweater,
scribbling numbers on the board.
I loved how I hated numbers, had always
hated them, would continue to hate them
until I saw them sprout from your hands.
I loved the silence that slowly fell
as we tried to figure out the path
you were laying down, the tangle of truths through which we must weave
to the heart of whatever mystery
you would reveal to us that day,
like a half-moon we might never see
unless we looked up.
— Joyce Sidman in “What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings”