The phrase I used for the title of this post has been on my mind since I started knitting my most recent Super Scarf – #34. (See previous post.)
It’s a phrase I can still recite from a poem that I used to be able to recite – exactly half way.
It’s a Smalltownville story that I should just take silently with me, but . . . . I’ll share.
I liked high school, for the most part. Classes were interesting, I got to see my friends every day, and any frustrations I could claim at that age, got banged out on the drums I played in the band.
My dad taught Chemistry in the classroom that overlooked the track and field where my Phys. Ed. classes were held in good weather. From his position at the front of his classroom, he could look out the window and watch his children as their gym classes ran past to and from the field.
There was a glitch in my day, however, and that was the Literature teacher – not the class – just the teacher. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity that I no longer remember her name and that I am more willing to point a finger at myself than at her.
On the first day of class, the teacher announced the following challenge: anyone who was able to recite the poem “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, before the final exam, would be exempt from the exam and receive an ‘A’ in Literature.
I thought it was a perfectly swell challenge – doodle in class, skip the homework, no reading stupid old stories, poems, or books, recite a poem, slide onto the Honor Roll! I decided to go for it.
I, of course, had to go to the Smalltownville library to find a copy of the poem. The Lit teacher’s challenge didn’t include saving me some time by giving me a copy.
I only knew the city librarian by the name that everyone called her. ‘Tiny’ helped me locate a book where I would find the poem. The library of my childhood occupied the space of one side of a building on the main street of my home town. The way the building was divided made the library very long and very narrow. Tiny’s desk was near the door and the Children’s and Youth section was way at the other end of the library. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was somewhere in between.
I found the book with Tiny’s help at the Card Catalogue – during the era where there were card catalogue actually had cards!
I didn’t check the book out immediately. I sat down in the library to begin memorizing. I spent many of my Saturday mornings in that library and the habit continued all through high school.
There are 143 stanzas in The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, most having four lines, but some having more – making for a memorization task of over 600 lines.
After I did the math, I gave this challenge a lot of thought . . . . and then I decided to hedge a bet. I was the only student who decided to accept the challenge, so I decided to memorize half of the poem. That was well past the “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink . . . ” stanza. I just didn’t figure the Lit teacher would actually take the time to listen to me recite the entire poem.
Oh, I worked plenty hard at what I did memorize. One of my weekend chores was to help Gr8 (my mother) with the ironing. I ironed a lot of shirts! And we still ironed bedding back then too. With tablecloths and cloth napkins, I had P-L-E-N-T-Y of time to memorize my lines. I placed my library book, open to the page I was working on at the time, on top of a shelf near the ironing board and repeated lines over and over again, each time adding the next stanza.
When I decided that I had memorized enough, I told my Lit teacher that I was ready to recite the poem and get my ‘A’. She was impressed that I had finished early – before the end of the term. I had to stand next to my desk in in the classroom as I recited.
“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Part I.”
I thought the ‘Part I’ thing was a good touch and played well for me. It also helped that I had been participating in Declamations since my freshman year: Short Stories and Humorous Speech, mostly. I recite my lines with a great deal of affect, and a great deal of dishonesty. I didn’t lie outright and tell her that I had memorized the entire poem. I simply told her that I was ready.
On and on she listened. I slowed my pace and recited with emotion in all the right places. Poor old albatross . . . . I did his part proud!
“Water, water everywhere . . . ” is the 29th stanza, so when I got to that part, I could get my bearing and decide if I was going to win my bet with myself.
I did win. The teacher didn’t really want to waste time listening to a high school kid recite 143 stanzas of a poem that turned out not to be included in the Lit curriculum that term. Alas, she stopped me when I had two stanzas left of the half I had memorized.
The key to pulling it off was not to look at all worried as I approached the last stanzas I had committed to memory. I went on confidently throughout. Cheating? Yes, absolutely! Lying? Not at all. More than Literature, I had learned creativity. I had been misleading, to be sure. But . . . hadn’t the teacher been misleading, as well, by not giving me the courtesy of listening to the entire piece?
This was the first of two Literature challenges I was offered during my education. The second happened in college. I got an ‘A’ in that class, too. I did the entire task in a week, and still get to brag about that one from time to time in my current position at the college where I work. It involved an entirely different piece of Literature and the challenge was much more interesting.
“Water, water everywhere
And not a drop to drink.”
This piece has many lines to it.
I’ll just learn half, I think!”
(With deepest regrets to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the above verse.)
Today, I drove past my Smalltownville high school where the above incident took place. I’m well past the shame and have made great strides in integrity, but for the life of me, I have no idea what my classmates did in Lit that term. Probably Dickens. Or, could it have been me who was the dickens?