Feb. 6, 2006

The School

by David Huddle

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Poem: "The School" by David Huddle from Summer Lake: New & Selected Poems, © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission.

The School

On one side the high school, on the other
grades one through seven, the purple-curtained
auditorium shrank and grew shabbier
each August we came back. Mr. Whitt one year
decided Charles Tomlinson, Slick King, Dwayne
Burchett, Bobby Peaks, and Big Face Cather
could be a basketball team. They practiced
on a rocky, red-dirt court with a basket
and some boards on a post. They drove to games
—always at the other school—in Slick's Ford.
Uniforms were jeans and T-shirts. Big Face
and Bobby played barefoot. They lost by scores
like ten to ninety-three, unaccustomed to such space,
wooden floors, lights, adults calling them names.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, born in Tampico, Illinois (1911). His father suffered from alcoholism. Reagan was eleven years old when he first came upon his father drunk and passed out on the front porch. Reagan wrote about the incident in his 1965 memoir Where's the Rest of Me. He said, "That was my first moment of taking responsibility. ... I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey from the speakeasy. I got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed. In a few days, he was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved and will always remember."

Reagan learned the art of improvisation in school as a result of his nearsightedness. He couldn't see the blackboard, even sitting in the front row, but he said, "I bluffed my lessons and got fairly good marks, considering."

He went on to use this talent at his first job out of college as a radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs. Reagan moved from broadcasting to a job as an actor in B movies. By the mid-1950s his career as an actor had stalled but he was slowly growing more interested in politics.

He became a Republican in 1962, and in 1964 the Republican Party asked him to give a half-hour address at the convention to nominate Barry Goldwater. The speech was so good that a group of Republicans got together and persuaded Reagan to run for governor of California.

It was the first time that a Hollywood celebrity had used his media savvy and name recognition to start a career in politics. When Reagan won his governor's race he was asked what he planned to do as governor. He said, "I don't know. I've never played a governor."

It's the birthday of lexicographer and writer Eric Partridge, born in Poverty Bay, New Zealand (1894). He served as a soldier in the Australian infantry during World War I, and he was fascinated by the ways soldiers used language, constantly making up new words and phrases. His early articles about slang were popular enough that he was able to write his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937).

It's the birthday of poet Victor Hernandez Cruz, born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico (1954). He went on to become an important member of the group of writers known as the Nuyorican poets—poets from Puerto Rico who grew up in New York City and who write about the blending of the two cultures. Cruz said, "I write from the center of a culture which is not on its native soil, a culture in flight, living half the time on memories. ... I write about the city with an agonizing memory of a lush tropical silence."

It was on this day in 1937 that John Steinbeck published his novel Of Mice and Men, the story of two migrant farm workers, George Milton and his simple-minded friend, Lennie Small, who dream of owning their own place and living off the fat of the land.

Steinbeck had worked as a farmhand to pay for his tuition in college and later took various manual labor jobs in California to support himself as a writer. He published two novels that had some success, Tortilla Flat (1935) and In Dubious Battle (1936), but they were written almost as journalism. He wanted to write something about migrant workers that was more like a parable or a myth.

He also wanted his fiction to reach the very workers he was writing about, and he knew that many poor farm workers were illiterate. He had seen theater troupes performing for farm-labor camps and he got the idea that he could write a novel that was made up almost entirely of dialogue so that it could also be produced as a play.

He had almost finished his first draft of the novel when his dog tore the manuscript to shreds. He eventually rewrote the novel and it was published on this day in 1937. The play was produced soon after, and both the novel and the play were huge successes.

Of Mice and Men has remained one of Steinbeck's most popular novels and it's been made into a movie three times, in 1939, 1981, and 1992.

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