Tuesday, March 22, 2011

`Enchantment Was What He Was After'

I’ve been working with a new student, an under-sized, over-stimulated kindergartener. I tube-feed him and tutor him in math, reading and writing. The classroom teacher has supplied us with a homemade writing workbook – photocopied pages, red cover, two staples. The handwritten title is “My Sight Word Poetry Book,” beneath which someone has drawn a pocket resembling a pair of jockey shorts, and beneath that, also handwritten, a poem of sorts:

“Put a rhyme in your pocket.
At school you start
To love learning words
With all of your heart.”

It’s not Milton but I appreciate the effort and sentiment, and so does my student. The idea is to supply the word missing in four or eight rhyming lines. He’s to print the same word four or eight times and, by repetition, learn to form letters while using the word correctly in a sentence. Here’s a sample, reminiscent of an exercise in a nineteenth-century primer:

“Bread comes from wheat.
Apples come from trees.
Milk comes from cows.
Honey comes from bees.”

Despite prevailing educational wisdom, I’m a great believer in rote learning. Try mastering irregular French verbs by osmosis. After he wrote “from” four times, my student and I read the lines aloud. We syncopated them, exaggerating the stressed syllables, and I snapped my fingers on the beat like a pedagogical hipster. He enjoyed the spectacle so we did it again, and again, and did the same with two more rhymes. I already know this kid, despite his troubles, is bright, a quick learner, but I’ll never turn down a student who asks me to repeat an exercise. My next project is to type up rhymes by Walter de la Mare, leaving some of the words blank. In “The King of Never-to-Be” (Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place, 2010), Eric Ormsby writes:

“De la Mare used the music of words as a way of extending them. He wanted words to be suffused with a sort of penumbra; he wanted them to cast a spell. Enchantment was what he was after.”

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