Tuesday

Nov. 29, 2011

Learning Animals and Insects in Third Grade

by Len Roberts

I could hear the horse neigh in that
    third-grade class,
its big head poked over the picture's
    white picket fence
while Sister told us the old, useless
    ones were sent to Alpo
or Zweiger's Glue Factory on Cherry Road,
each of us looking around to see if it was true,
seeing all kinds of snakes sloughing their skins
and bats hanging by their claws in the dark
    caves underground,
a giant turtle on its back, gasping for breath
as we sat straight at our desks
and yelled out which ones lay eggs,
which ones bore their young, listening
to the whales as they circled the globe,
listening to Ray Martineau's asthmatic breathing
that fell like the falling snow, shhhh, shhhh,
    against the dripping window,
one of every kind of beast circling us,
all their eyes mirroring our eyes back
except for the ants who never stopped tunneling
    into their glass-caged earth,
busy from the second our lights went on
with their tunnels that went sideways and up
    and down,
sudden small pockets of silence in which they
    passed
along the shadowed, erratic trails that dead-ended
    against invisible walls
and then doubled back, again and again, in that
    late, upstate New York winter day.

"Learning Animals and Insects in Third Grade" by Len Roberts, from Counting the Black Angels. © University of Illinois Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Amos Bronson Alcott (1799) (books by this author), born in Wolcott, Connecticut, and also the birthday of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott (1832) (books by this author), born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The father was a transcendentalist philosopher, abolitionist, and teacher; the daughter was the author of many books, most notably Little Women (1868). Bronson Alcott was full of dreams and schemes, an idealist who founded a commune called Fruitlands and became a vegan before the term even existed. Fruitlands failed miserably, and Alcott got by on loans from others, including his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the Alcotts were often without money. At 15, Louisa vowed: "I will do something by and by. Don't care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I'll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won't! [...] I'll make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world."

Louisa May Alcott started writing poems and submitting them to periodicals. She also published Hospital Sketches (1863), which was based on her experiences as an Army nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Her first literary success came with the semi-autobiographical Little Women, and the money she made provided her father with his first taste of financial security. She never favored the domestic, value-laden type of writing that made her famous. What she really loved was writing lurid Gothic romances, a fondness that traced back to her childhood acting out stories with her sisters; she wrote three of the thrillers under the pen name "A.M. Barnard." Two were published in her lifetime; the third — A Long Fatal Love Chase — was written in 1866, but was rejected as being too sensational. It was finally published in 1995.

Bronson Alcott died on March 4, 1888; a few days earlier, bedridden, he had told his visiting daughter Louisa, "I am going up. Come with me." She replied, "I wish I could." As it turned out, she followed him just two days later, dying of a stroke at age 55.

Thomas Edison demonstrated his new phonograph for the first time on this date in 1877. Other inventors had figured out how to record sounds onto metal plates or wax-coated paper, but Edison was the first to come up with a machine that could play the sounds back. He made his first recordings on tinfoil cylinders, and his intention was to develop a "talking telegraph." It never occurred to him that people would ever want to play music on it. The Scientific American reported, "A young man came into the office ... and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: 'Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?' The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph." The machine was an overnight sensation.

It's the birthday of Irish author C.S. [Clive Staples] Lewis (books by this author), born in Belfast in 1898. When he was four, his dog Jacksie was hit by a car and killed; the boy declared he was changing his name to "Jacksie," and for a while he wouldn't answer to anything else. For the rest of his life, he was known as "Jack" to his family and close friends.

Raised in the Church of Ireland, he became an atheist in his teens and eventually returned to the church after a series of long theological arguments with his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. "I gave up Christianity at about 14," he said. "Came back to it when getting on for 30. Not an emotional conversion; almost purely philosophical. I didn't want to. I'm not in the least a religious type. I want to be let alone, to feel I'm my own master; but since the facts seemed to be just the opposite, I had to give in." He wrote Mere Christianity (1952), a classic of Christian apologetics; and The Screwtape Letters (1942), an epistolary novel that consists of letters from a demon to his apprentice nephew, giving him pointers on leading a man astray. He's also the author of the seven-book allegorical fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, which he wrote for children. He thought it would be a good way to introduce Christian themes to children without beating them over the head, something that had turned him off as a young man. "An obligation to feel can freeze feelings," he once said.

One of his books, Miracles (1947), had a profound effect on a writer from New York. Joy Davidman Gresham had been raised Jewish, but, like Lewis, had become an atheist. She was separated from her husband, who was an alcoholic, and she was raising their two sons by herself when she came upon Lewis's book. After she read it, she began praying, and started attending services at a Presbyterian church. She also began a correspondence with Lewis that eventually led to their marriage in 1957. Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer, and she married Lewis from her hospital bed; the doctors sent her home to die, but she went into remission instead, and they had almost four wonderful years together. After her death in 1960, Lewis was devastated. He wrote a book, A Grief Observed (1961), which contained his thoughts, questions, and observations. It was so raw and personal that he published it under a pseudonym. Friends actually recommended the book to him, to help with his grief, unaware that he'd written it. His authorship wasn't made known until after his death in 1963. In the book, he writes that he doesn't believe people are reunited with their loved ones in the next life. "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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