By Megan Ruppel
English Teaching Fellow
This year, one of our final projects in seventh-grade English is to memorize a poem. From Emily Dickinson to Kahlil Gibran to James Baldwin, students are picking out something to learn and hold onto, and as I’ve been watching my students’ submissions, I’ve been wondering why it matters that we memorize poems, wondering what it’s for. A few weeks back we watched the spoken word poet Sarah Kay’s TED Talk, which begins with the poem “If I should have a daughter,” where she gives life advice to a hypothetical future daughter. Another of my favorite poems of hers is about fathers and sons—“Hand Me Downs” it’s called. A lot of her poetry is like that, is about generations, about the things we pass on to each other.
Poems are the things we pass on. Some of the oldest things we have in language, in any language, are poems. Poems that were written three, four thousand years ago. And because, long before any human civilization was writing things down, mothers and fathers were memorizing poems and passing them on to their children, we have those poems still. When you think about it, it really is amazing, the oral tradition, this thing linking us back; this long, thin vertical line extending back and back and back. I believe part of being a contributing member of civilization today is being willing to take poems from the people who came before us and pass them on. So that’s why we memorize poems.
But when we speak them aloud they take on new life, are born again into a new generation. And that’s the other thing about poetry, is that it’s creative, is that anyone can write a poem, from scratch, and it doesn’t have to be good, but it’s new. That’s actually a thing about language in general that interests me, is how every second, new sentences are coming into existence that have never been spoken before. Yes, poetry is about carrying on an oral tradition, but poetry is also about starting from scratch, about breaking the tradition, exploding it, starting from new where you are now. Repetition and variance: we repeat, we repeat, and then we change.
Also this week, my students finished reading the book Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickham, Jr. It’s the basis for the movie October Sky, and it’s about a boy, Sonny, who grows up in a West Virginia coal-mining town and teaches himself to build rockets. Reading my students’ final essays (we call them RTLs, or “Responses to Literature”, in seventh grade), I noticed how that same motif of repetition and variance comes up in the central tension between Sonny and his father Homer Sr. It’s the tension between following in a tradition and inventing things from scratch. Homer wants Sonny to be a miner, to repeat what came before him, to carry it on into a new generation. And Sonny wants to discover something new. He teaches himself calculus so he can build rockets. He starts from scratch.
On the very first page of the book, Sonny writes that the lesson he learned from rocket science is that pressure in a converging passageway can be transformed into new kinetic energy if a divergent passage is added. In other words, when you blast a new exit out of what you thought was a dead end, all that blocked energy is made into new momentum. Sonny creates that new exit for his town. The mine in Coalwood is dying—in fact, the whole American mining industry is dying—but what he manages to do—and he’s only a teenager when he does it—is blast open a new exit, and find his way out. And he carries out with him the traditions of his family: engineering, innovation, hard work, and determination. Repetition and variance, again. There are things we pass on, and things we have to teach ourselves from scratch.
Why do we read? We read because it’s a way of carrying forward the lives of the past. It’s about characters. It’s about Gary and Meimei and Reuven and Lilia. It’s about Jed, and Scout, and Atticus Finch; and it’s about Tom Robinson. When we read a book like The Hate U Give, the lives of Emmett Till and George Floyd become more real to us through the character of Khalil. When we read these stories, we enter into what Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” relation with these characters. We feel what they feel. And their memories pass through us and on into the future.
But there’s repetition, and there’s variance. That’s where the response part of our “Responses to Literature” comes in. When my students write their Responses to Literature, they are pointing out something new in the story, they are teaching themselves something from scratch. It’s just them and the book and the blank Google Doc. And at the end of an hour, or two hours, they’ve written a bunch of new sentences that didn’t exist before. They are excavating from a story that was already written new meaning, new possibilities. And that’s what English class is about. Not reading, not writing, but both. We read, and we write. There are things we pass on, and things we have to invent for ourselves from scratch. That central tension, between the old tradition and the new, is at the heart of the study of literature.
And I’d add that it’s a tension that’s distinctly American, and therefore useful to my class on American literature, because America was founded on the idea of revolution, the idea of blowing up the tradition and starting from scratch. Yet if we want to form a national identity, if we want to hold ourselves together, we need a tradition, we need something to pass on that makes us feel like we belong to each other. We need both the tradition and the revolution. Miners and rocket scientists.
I hope my students will take something like this lesson from our work together this year. They’ll probably forget it all in a few years, and that’s fine, but maybe they’ll remember the poem they learned, and that’ll be enough. Embedded in every poem and every book is this message of repetition and variance. You can always remember it. All you have to do is read.
But that’s enough. End of the year, we’re out of time. As the Iron Giant says, “You go, I stay.” It’ll start again with new students next year.