A favourite poem
A man tells a story.
He tells a story about the first book he bought. (Actually it’s an incredible book.) He then, as a result of his experience in a bookstore, makes an observation about himself: He realises that he has a deep-seated psychological disposition to react in a certain way. This is what he tells us about that book and that disposition:
‘When I was thirteen … I listened to Shakespeare plays on the radio of Mrs Purcell the blind woman who lived next door (in Limerick, Ireland). A fuse blew the night we listened to Julius Caesar and I was so eager to find out what happened to Brutus and Mark Antony I went to O’Mahoney’s bookshop to get the rest of the story. A sales clerk in the shop asked me in a superior way if I intended to buy that book and I told him I was thinking about it but first I’d have to find out what happened to everyone in the end, especially the one I liked, Brutus. The man said never mind, pulled the book away from me, and said this was not a library and would I kindly leave. I backed into the street, embarrassed and blushing – and wondering at the same time why people won’t stop bothering people. Even when I was small, eight or nine, I wondered why people won’t stop bothering people and I’ve been wondering ever since.’
That first book is ‘The works of William Shakespeare, gathered into one volume’ – and it was the only book that the man took with him to America. (He admits that he did not buy the book solely for its cultural value: he also recognised that, in those days, a man who knew some Shakespeare could impress the girls of New York.) And his psychological disposition is made clear: he simply does not like the fact that people bother other people. And that they won’t stop bothering other people.
The man moves on through life. He has all sorts of jobs. He ends up in New York teaching creative writing and English at a good New York school. But, as with every school in the USA, he’s up against the young Americans and it’s no easy task teaching them creative writing and english. He actually succeeds and even gets them to enjoy exploring, for example, the creative side of written recipes. But when he returns to consider some of the more formal aspects of creative writing he decides to tell the students about his favourite poem. Here is the poem and here are the students’ reactions:
‘They groan when I announce that I am going to read them my favourite poem. That pisses me off and I tell them. A shocked silence. Teacher using bad language. Never mind. Recite the poem:
‘Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And doesn’t know where to find them.
Leave then alone and they will come home
Wagging their tails behind them’
The class reacts: ‘Hey, what’s going on here? That’s not a poem. This is high school and he’s giving us Mother Goose. Is he pulling our leg? Is he playing little games with us?‘
The man – the teacher responds:
‘I recite the poem again and encourage them to waste no time in digging for the deeper meaning.’
They respond again: ‘Aw come on. Is this a joke? Man, this is high school.’
The teacher replies:
‘On the surface the poem, or nursery rhyme, seems simple, a plain story of a little girl who has lost her sheep, but are you listening?
She has learned to leave them alone. Bo Peep is cool. She trusts her sheep. She doesn’t go bothering them as they nibble away in pasture, glen, vale and hillside. They need their grass, their roughage, and the occasional draught of water from a tinkling mountain stream. Also they have little lambs who need time for bonding with their mothers after they’ve frolicked all day with their peers. They don’t need the world barging in and destroying the mood. They might be sheep, they might be lambs, they might be ewes they might be rams, but they are entitled to a little communal happiness before they are transformed into the mutton we devour, the wool we wear.’
And the pupils’ reaction? Well, they’d like to know if their teacher is trying to make some sort of point.
He replies: ‘No. I am not trying to make some point except to say I like this poem for its simple message.’
And they ask: ‘What’s that?‘
And his reply takes us back to that deep-seated disposition – a disposition that was beginning to be articulated when the man was 8 years old: ‘That people should stop bothering people.’
He adds: Little Bo Peep backs off. She trusts her sheep. She leaves them alone and they come home and you can imagine their joyful reunion. Bo Peep knits by the fire happy in the knowledge that she has bothered nobody.
(In fact, there is much more going on in this account: the wider message (kept subliminal) is that the very children he is schooling will be ‘bothered’ by the educational system and turned into ‘mutton’ only to be devoured by the wider consumerist society.)
I like this account. I think this is an example of excellent teaching. The man goes on to tell us how to get going with creative writing. Later in life he becomes an acclaimed author.