Op-Ed: The El Capitan of freshman English: Memorize a — gasp! — poem

(Los Angeles Times)

The task is the El Capitan of freshman English. Find a poem you like. Study it. Memorize it. Recite it to your classmates. You have two weeks to scale the poem’s wall.

I’ve given this assignment for 20 years. It always elicits the same reaction when the students grasp the weight of what’s being asked. The questions begin.

Student: “Do I have to do this, Mr. Curnett?”

Me: “Yes, everyone has to do it.”


Student: “Is it for a grade?”

Me: “Yes, a huge grade that will count heavily.” (I’m kind of lying here, but the students equate grades with importance.)

Student: “Can I get my friend to read mine for me, Mr. Curnett?”

Me: “No.”

Student: “Can I do it from my desk, or do I have to stand in front?”

Me: “Stand in front like everyone else.” (The student rolls her eyes and looks for salvation outside the window. There is only a bird.)

Student: “Can I have notes?” (Forty-four eyes stare into my soul.)

Me: “No.” (A collective gasp. I’m fairly certain that one kid mouths an expletive but I can’t be sure.)

Student: “What happens if I forget my lines?”

Me: “I’ll help you.” (Several “yeah, right” looks. I have clearly forsaken them already.)

Student: “Can I choose a poem my friend wrote? It’s really good. It’s about love.”

Me: “No.” (“God, no,” I think.)

Student: “I can’t do this, Mr. Curnett.”

Me: “Yes, you can do it.”

So we begin the search for the right poem. We comb through poetry websites as if we are sweeping metal detectors along a beach, listening for beeps that might reveal treasure. Eventually, each student finds a title. I have no idea how it happens. It just does.

For me, the student and the poet become entwined. Jimmy’s got Whitman. Alexa’s is Dickinson. Faisal’s giving Countee Cullen a whirl. Tamara has inexplicably chosen Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” Jasmine has found Linda Pastan.

The student who is more intelligent than I will ever be recites Langston Hughes with a clarity and depth that few human beings could muster.

As week one turns into week two, the questions become more contextual, less fatalistic. I’m holding conferences, a mafia boss at his restaurant table. The students are so earnest in what they want to know. They think I have all of the answers.

Student: “Mr. Curnett, how do you pronounce this word?”

Me: “In-VICK-tuss. Nice choice. Have you heard of Nelson Mandela before? No? Let me tell you about this poem ....”

Student: “Mr. Curnett, I don’t understand this line. Can you help me?”

Me: “The speaker means that he’s lying on his couch and reflecting on the daffodils he’s seen. This is what people did before phones. They often had moods that were vacant and pensive. Can you imagine? Nothing to do but lie there and think of flowers as a way to relax. Have you ever done that? No? Try it. Talk to me about it tomorrow.”

Student: “Mr. Curnett, that thing you were teaching us — should I do it here?”

Me: “Yes, that’s a good place for emphasizing the line’s enjambment. Roll on through it. Use the punctuation to guide your voice.”

Student: “Mr. Curnett, do you have a favorite poem?”

Me: “Too many to count. But you can’t go wrong with ‘Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.’ I’ve been reading that poem for 30 years, since I was about your age. Everything in that poem makes me feel something inside. It gets worse as I get older.”

Student: “Mr. Curnett, my grandmother died yesterday. I don’t think I can memorize my poem. Is that OK?”

Me: “Yes, of course that is OK. I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. I really am. Maybe you can sit and listen to the students recite their poems, and you can think about her.”

Student: “Mr. Curnett, can I go to the bathroom but still finish this conference?”

Me: “Sure. Myra will just have to wait.”

Recital day finally arrives. It is one of the reasons I teach — to see this annual migration of ninth-graders across the desert of pop culture to the oasis that is literature.

The student with dyslexia shines with “The Tyger,” William Blake’s rhythm reaching through 225 years to find a fearful symmetry in her voice. Students thrum their hands to the cadence. There’s applause when she finishes.

The student who is more intelligent than I will ever be recites Langston Hughes with a clarity and depth that few human beings could muster. When he finishes, the class bursts into applause again.

The quiet boy who had always seemed so aloof delivers 40 lines of Homer without a hitch. 40 lines! The students look at each other, dumbfounded, then trade expressions of approval. More applause.

On and on it goes, all day long. More than 60 poems, each performance style unique. I am proud of all the students for their efforts and abilities, even the ones who botched it.

Art is greater than we are: It’s the realization of this idea that makes the assignment so compelling. Something as weightless as a poem can have the power to make us laugh or weep or guffaw or go silent with feeling — or cause a ninth-grade classroom to erupt with applause on a Tuesday morning in April, as centuries-old words reverberate off the walls.

Joshua Curnett is a high school English teacher, currently in Singapore.

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