Teachers, parents, siblings, mentors of every kind leave their mark upon us. I was in the fifth grade at Isaac Newton Elementary school in Detroit when my teacher, Mrs. Chapman, had us memorize Ozymandias, a poem composed in 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Then we had to recite it to our classmates.
I walked to the front of the room and paused, a dramatic device storytellers employ to command the attention of their audience. Actually, I was just trying not to throw up: it was my first public solo performance. I was terrified, but it was also electrifying to be able to convey such a compelling story, such unforgettable imagery. Not only did I not throw up, but I got an A. And I never forgot that poem.
My mother used to recite poetry to us, like “Daffodils” by Wordsworth and “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. Over the years I’ve shared Ozymandias and other gems (okay, sometimes I sing jingles from the TV commercials I watched as a kid), to a certain captive audience–my children. Occasionally I recognize my own words reflected back to me from the mouths of my babes. Sometimes to my chagrin, but most often to my surprise and delight.
My son Eli is home between teaching assignments…
…and tonight Bea returns from Stanford on spring break. It will be so good for us all to be back together again. My ritual, when the kids depart for school, is to tidy their rooms, change the sheets, and drop a tear or two as I make their rooms ready for them to come home to the next time…and they are always grateful.
The last time Eli left I was tempted to hire a bulldozer…
…but it’s like spending a little quiet time with that absent child.
Last night, in a burst of inspired procrastination (he was tired of reorganizing his own room), Eli decided to surprise Bea by cleaning her room, and not just the sort of tidying I do, but a thorough reorganization, including the mountain of books stacked haphazardly in the corner, that pile of her things parked just inside the door, not to mention the surprise found in a teacup discovered under a pile of stuff on her desk. It’s either a science experiment or a strange new life form. It took Eli over five hours. He found so many new ways and places to shelve books that they almost fit on her shelves now!
But nothing comes without a price tag. In fact, after Eli was finished, everything had a tag on it. Oh, yes. He had made his mark.
I love this one…
But my absolute favorite touch was the greeting on the door.
I howled with laughter. “Oh, good,” said Eli. “I didn’t know if you’d get the reference.” “Do I get the reference?” I asked, launching into a recitation of Ozymandias. “How did you think of it?” He said he remembered it from all the times I’d recited it. Of course I ran to find my book of Shelley…
When I opened it up in search of the poem, I saw that someone else had made her mark. Upon the book…
…and maybe even upon me.
The poetry and the stories we pass from generation to generation enrich and prepare us for the struggles we will face, within ourselves and in the outside world. I believe they will outlast the Mighty and their monuments to themselves, and, I hope, their wars.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Mrs. Chapman. Thank you, son. And welcome home, Bea!
All images and words (except for Mr. Shelley’s, of course) copyright Naomi Baltuck