Symphony 54

“I can not only read it, I had to memorize it once. That is one tricky lady up there.”

The passage wasn’t in English, quite. It was tantalizingly familiar yet basically unreadable. It went:

Hear me, Auld Hangie, for a wee,
An’ let poor damned bodies be;
I’m sure sma’ pleasure it can gie,
               Ev’n to a deil,
To skelp an’ scaud poor dogs like me,
               An’ hear us squeel.

The piece consisted of the ten most difficult of the poem’s twenty-one verses.

Anne Marie announced, “You have only one minute left. Are you half finished?” The audience laughed uneasily.

Carmen said, “What is this?”

Neil whispered, “It’s a poem by Robert Burns, Address to the Deil.” When he pronounced deil correctly with a slight stop between syllables that told of the missing letter, Carmen recognized that it meant devil. “It’s half in Scots and half in antiquated English. Burns sometimes wrote in English, sometimes in his native tongue, and sometimes he mixed them up. My grandfather is a real fan of Burns. When I was growing up, he said that any Scotsman, even an expatriate, had to learn his Rabbie Burns. So I did.

“Hang on to your wallet, Carmen, this gal is going to start selling snake oil any minute.”

And, indeed, she did. After most of the teachers had confessed that they could make little out of the passage, she arranged them in groups and let them discuss the material. In that way, they were able to tease much of the sense out of it, though they were still wide of the mark on those words which were simply outside their experience. They could figure out from context that gie was give and hame was home, but no amount of reasoning could tell them that douce meant sweet. They took skelp to mean scalp, when it really meant to strike.

This, Anne Marie went on to say, was what was wrong with the teaching of reading in California by the old methods. The teachers had now experienced just the kind of frustration a Chicano, or Viet Namese, or Maung child feels when trying to read English. It was one thing to read when you knew most of the words, but when you know half or less than half, the frustration is immense. Her solution was group reading and discussion so that the strong readers could help the weak ones to understand.

By this time, Neil was drumming his fingers on the table and twitching in his seat. Carmen put her hand over his and said, “Shh. What’s wrong?”

“Can this woman be that stupid?” Neil whispered. “Can she really believe that she has proved anything?”

Carmen tried to hide a smile. Strangely, it was a breakthrough for them that she could laugh at him. She said, “Anne Marie’s a hard-sell artist, but listen to her. She has a lot of valuable things to say.”

“Maybe,” Neil thought, “but I doubt it.”

Eventually the morning wore away. Lunch was being provided and they all adjourned to a nearby banquet room. Carmen stopped half a dozen times on the way there to speak to friends from other schools. When they entered the banquet room and looked around for a place to sit, Anne Marie Chang motioned across the room to them. Carmen said something unladylike under her breath, added, “Now were stuck!”. She waved back brightly.

Carmen introduced Neil to Anne Marie and explained that he was taking Gina Wyatt’s place. “Neil has been teaching high school literature classes. This is his first time with sixth graders, so the framework is all new to him.” more tomorrow


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