Saturday, January 24, 2009

Praise Song for the Day

The first class of the semester is taken up with reviewing the syllabus, making terrifying threats about academic thought crimes, and generally establishing that this is a free and open classroom under my benevolent rule. I want my students to feel safe and comfortable expressing their ideas, both half-baked and brilliant, but I also want them to feel unsafe and uncomfortable calling each other and everything else lame, retarded, and gay. It is a delicate balance - one that seems to work best if they think I am a little scary.
The second class is all about establishing the study of literature as a much more worthwhile and accessible enterprise than they had previously thought. I ask how many of them hate poetry and see a sea of hands. Play haters are numerous as well. Resistance to short stories is minimal. That is why we start with short stories. But this time I am going to start with poetry- the inaugural poem. What better way to focus on audience, purpose, meaning, and form? First we deconstruct text-messaging as a genre. The agreement of all three sections is that its best features are brevity, informality, and the hiding of all emotions. The worst features are the brevity, informality, and hiding of emotions. Boys like it better than girls. All have horror stories of being offended or offensive by accident. Everyone agrees that it is an amazing way to keep in touch with a loved one when the plane is landing, the fridge is empty, or the others on the subway are eavesdropping.
Then they tackle the poem. Most do not recognize it, even though most watched the inauguration. But they start to pick up snatches of meaning right away. All three sections seize on the phrase "love without need to pre-empt grievance" and suggest that when combined with " darning a hole in a uniform" that this is a poem about repairing our world wide reputation. One kid says that he would like to be proud of his blue passport and not want to lie and say he is Canadian. Only one student objects to the poem, feeling that it, and the whole inauguration just harped on race too much. After all the US is one of the least racist countries in the world? What more do these people want? The rest of the class laughs merrily at this notion.
I did not really like the poem all that much when I heard it performed on television. I was more taken with the Revered Lowries prayer;
Lord in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning
we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around- and when yellow will be mellow- when the red man can get ahead man, and when the white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.
I don't usually like poetry that rhymes. But this one stuck in my mind, so much that I was able to recite the better part of it to my class and watch with a certain amount of badly hidden glee how this just didn't please my " don't you go playing that race card' student. This semester should be interesting.

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