I’m a fairly cynical teacher. At times, I feel as though what I say to my students, what I try to teach them about literature, about how to love literature, never makes it through. I do my song and dance. I try to project my enthusiasm for Shakespeare or Flannery O’Connor or Truman Capote or whomever, but I’m never sure if they’re buying what I’m selling.
During an extended assembly at my Flint Hill today, I watched fourteen contestants recite poems for the nationally sponsored Poetry Out Loud competition (Go NEA!), and I was astonished by the bravery of those kids. Sporting events and even musical and theatrical events command a certain respect in high school culture, but a poetry recitation typically doesn’t appeal to a teenage audience. But today my school proved itself to be anything but typical.
I was moved twice during the recitations. First, by the passion that these students exhibited for the poems they were reciting. Each contestant brought something of him or herself to the experience, often interpreting the poems in personal and meaningful ways. Second, and perhaps even more remarkable, I was impressed by the audience: 500 hundred high school students—athletes to Latin scholars—remained respectful of the contestants for the duration; they seemed, even at times despite themselves, to get caught up in the poetry.
So, it was a good day for poetry and a reminder of the transformative power of literature.