It’s a high school class in America. We’re in New York City. It’s all about Creative Writing and English. Language reveals the man; So, speak that I may see you!
A bell rings and the teacher begins the class:
‘Open your books. Turn to this poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke. If you don’t have a book look over someone’s shoulder. Stanley, would you read the poem aloud? Thanks.’
And so Stanley reads the poem; it’s “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my waist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
Teacher: ‘Thanks again, Stanley. Take a few minutes to look over the poem again. Let it sink in. So, when you read the poem what happened?’
The Class: ‘What do you mean, What happened?’
Teacher: ‘You read the poem. Something happened, something moved in your head, in your body … Or nothing happened. You’re not required to respond to every stimulus in the universe. You are not weather vanes.’
The Class: ‘Mr McCourt, what are you talking about?’
Teacher: ‘I’m saying that you don’t have to respond to everything a teacher or anyone else sets before you.’
But they look dubious: And collectively they seem to say: ‘Oh yeah, tell that to some of the teachers around here …’
The Class: ‘Mr McCourt, do you want us to talk about what the poem means?’
Teacher: ‘I’d like you to talk about whatever you’d like to talk about in the general neighbourhood of the poem. Bring in your grandmother if you like. Don’t worry about the “real” meaning of the poem. Even the poet won’t know that. When you read it something happened or nothing happened. Would you raise your hand if nothing happened. All right, no hands. So something happened, in your head or in your heart …
You’re a writer. What happens when you hear music? Chamber music, Rock? You see a couple arguing on the street. You look at a child rebelling against its mother. You see a homeless man begging. You see a politician giving a speech. You ask someone to go out with you. You observe the response of the other person. Because you’re a writer you ask yourself – always always always – What’s happening baby?’
[I think he must mean: What’s happening to me – what’s it doing to me? and, What’s happening for them? What’s going on for them – or, what do I feel is going on for them? etc.]
And then the teacher succeeds in getting his students to respond to the poem by giving a first response:
Teacher: ‘Well, like this poem is about a father dancing with his kid and it’s not pleasant because the father is drunk and insensitive.’
Brad responds: ‘If it’s not pleasant why does he hang on like death?’
Monica: ‘There’s a lot going on here. The kid is dragged around the kitchen. He could be a rag doll for all the papa cares.’
Brad, again: ‘There’s a giveaway word here: Romped. That’s a happy word, right? I mean he could have said danced, something ordinary. But he says romped, and, like you’re always telling us, a word can change the atmosphere of a sentence or a paragraph. So, romped creates a happy atmosphere.’
Jonathon: ‘You can tell me if I’m out of order Mr McCourt but did your father ever dance you around the kitchen?’
Teacher: ‘He never danced us around the kitchen, but he got us out of bed late at night to sing patriotic Irish songs and promise to die for Ireland.’
Jonathon: ‘Yeah, I figured the poem had something to do with your childhood.’
Teacher: ‘That’s partly true but I asked you to read this because it captures a moment, a mood, and … there might be a deeper meaning … What about the mother?’
Sheila: ‘What’s going on in this poem is very simple. This guy has a hard job, coal miner or something. Comes home with a battered knuckle, hands caked with dirt. The mum sits over there – mad as hell – but she’s used to it. She knows it’s going to happen once a week when he gets paid. Like your dad, Mr McCourt. The kid loves his father because you’re always drawn to the crazy one. Doesn’t matter that the mother keeps the house going. Kid takes that for granted. So when the dad comes home, Oh, he’s all charged up from the drink and gets the kid all excited.’
Teacher: ‘What happens when the poem finishes, David?’
David: ‘The dad waltzes him off to bed. The mom puts the pans back on the kitchen shelf. Next day is Sunday and the dad gets up feeling lousy. The mom makes breakfast but won’t talk to anyone and the kid is caught between. He’s only about nine because he’s only tall enough to scrape his ear on the buckle. The mother would like to walk out and get a divorce because she’s sick of this lousy life but she can’t because she’s stuck in the middle of West Virginia and there’s no escape when you don’t have money.’
And so it goes on … and the pupils’ responses to the poem begin to connect with how the text and meanings could be made into a film and how poems are great if they are taken as they are and not over-analysed.
It all finishes with a wonderful dispute between two of those high school classmates:
One takes the view that there would be nothing more boring than making a film about people falling out over the interpretation of a sonnet. The other retorts: ‘Teacher, tell him he can kiss my arse.’
And to this the teacher replies: ‘That’s a message you’ll have to deliver yourself.’
The bell rings. Life goes on.
Footnote: We used to try and work like this when we were ‘teaching’ things like ‘managing people’ or ‘personal ethics’; we didn’t have specified objectives; we wanted to let realities unfold and truths emerge. Of course, sooner or later, a more repressive regime took over. All the creative stuff was eliminated. And that was that.
This excerpt is taken from Frank McCourt’s book, ‘Teacher man.’ Frank McCourt is the teacher.