Wednesday, April 13, 2011


We stopped by our friends’ house the other night, dropping off a few things and gathering a few others. Their triplets were at the kitchen island, pencils in hand, school papers strewn out across the granite like they were designing some sort of academic collage. I leaned over the counter as we talked, one part of my brain glancing at the writings of seven year old boys and another part talking about the quality of vanilla in Mexico. You know how it is when you multi task and the different parts of your brain assigned to the varying categories shift their weight and one thing drops into consciousness almost all of a sudden? My first-position thoughts shifted from vanilla to Luke’s little essay on his trip to Mexico. It soon took my full attention as I read it, charmed right off by his neat handwriting, methodically chiseled across the lined elementary school homework paper. He sat right in front of me, and out of consideration for his privacy, I asked for permission to read it. He nodded his head. I picked up the paper and scanned it, then almost instinctively asked if I could read it aloud to him. Again, he nodded.

“My mom used to read my writings aloud to me when I was little.” I told him.

I lifted the paper in my hands in a rather official sort of way, not too showy, but respectful-like. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he listened to me read, his little head shifted to an angle of pondering, like it was totally new information he was hearing and not something he had created himself not ten minutes before.

Watching the corners of his lips curl up; watching him fight the desire to smile; this was just precious, because I knew what he was feeling. I have felt it before myself.

Fourth grade. Sitting in seat three of row four in Mrs. Euler’s class. Invisible little blonde haired girl. Quiet, dutiful, not at all stellar in any way. I was simply the girl in seat three. Until that day we had to write our first essay. The assignment was to write something about the wind. I decided to write about a Gale wind, having just learned about different kinds of air movement. Using my best handwriting, I copied what I wrote on the grade A paper reserved for special assignments. I signed my name…Corinne Hansen…and set it on Mrs. Euler’s desk.

A few days later Mrs. Euler called me up to her desk while everyone was working on their arithmetic.

“Mr. Parker would like to see you.”

“Right now?” I asked, my voice instantly shaking, my little heart pounding in my chest.


That’s all she said. She looked down at the papers she was grading and I turned, glanced over at the kids quietly scribbling numbers on their papers, and shuffled out the door into the wide green linoleum covered hallway. Down the stairs, through the glass topped doors and into the first level, I looked up at the wall and turned where the sign poked out, the one that said: Mr. Parker, Principal. I walked into the secretary’s room and told her Mrs. Euler said I needed to see Mr. Parker. Her hands were hovered over the large keyboard of a typewriter, her fingers pouncing rhythmically on the keys, the slap-slap-slapping of her work shocking my senses until it repeated enough to feel familiar and less threatening. She motioned for me to take a seat. I sat there, my knees pressed together, my tennis shoes barely touching the floor, my back not quite hitting the back of the chair. I fiddled with my fingers, wondering what I might have done wrong, and why Mr. Parker needed to see me. Maybe he found out my dad had come home drunk last week and I was in trouble for that. Maybe I wasn’t ready for fourth grade cuz that math stuff still confused me and they decided I needed to be in third grade again. That would not have bothered me, because Mrs. Hobgood, my third grade teacher, loved me. I knew she did. And Mrs. Euler definitely did not.

The door to Mr. Parker’s office creaked open and a kid I didn’t know walked out, his face looking straight down to the ground. I watched him scurry out, then turned my head forward, looking down at the line in the wax where the rooms divided, peeking up very carefully at the open door to the principals office. The secretary stopped typing and leaned over to me.

“Your turn.” She smiled, then went back to her work. I stood, tugged at my skirt, and tiptoed into the doorway, waiting for permission to enter. Mr. Parker sat, bespectacled, at his desk, his receding hairline reflecting the light streaming in through the window. He looked up at me, asked me my name, and told me to take a seat. I sat on the edge of the chair in front of his desk, my hands tucked under my thighs, elbows facing out, eyebrows raised as I shifted my eyes from the floor to his desk and back to the floor. He reached over his desk to a pile of papers, lifted one up, and looked it over. Next thing I knew he laid the paper on his desk top, grabbed the wooden knob of a stamp, then flipped open the inkpad on the corner of his desk. He tapped the stamp against the ink and then hammered it onto the top of the paper. He blew on it briefly, then handed it to me.

“Very nice, Corinne.” He looked me in the eye as he handed me the paper, a sparkle of warmth shot through his glasses, and then he told me to hurry back to class.

I left, smiling at the secretary as I passed by, and scurried up the stairs to the long green hall. There I paused and looked at the paper. In my own handwriting, with my own name at the top, was my essay; A Gale Wind. And stamped in blue ink next to the title was Mr. Parker’s approval : VERY GOOD.

I took the paper home that afternoon and told Mom about my meeting with the principal and how I was really surprised Mrs. Euler gave my writing to Mr. Parker because she hated me and I wondered aloud if every kid had to meet with Mr. Parker about their essays. Mom sat for a minute and looked at the paper, then began to read aloud:

“A gale wind wizzing trough the almost broken branches of the trees makes a whistling sound that nearly stings your ears….” (I can hardly believe I remembered that!) I can hear my mother’s voice reading it to me. When she read, it sounded like poetry. When she read it sounded beautiful, like she loved my words and knew exactly what I meant to say.

Through the coming years my mother read many of my own words aloud to me. Way back…way, way back in the caverns of my memory I can hear the words, lilting and melodic and well paced. So much better than they sounded in my own head when I read them on paper. Thinking back on it, I believe she could have read me a recipe and it would have sounded poetic. She had a powerful voice. Not thunderous, just powerful.

Mom believed I was a poet. And because she believed; I believed.

There is something markedly different in the sound of a word versus the look of a word. Hearing it gives it a second life; a validity. Mom had vinyl recordings of poets reading their own work, and we especially loved Robert Frost’s rumbly throaty readings of Stopping By Woods, The Mending Wall and Swinging Birches. It was her voice that gave life to Where the Red Fern Grows and The Bird’s Christmas Carol on dark winter nights. Mom taught us to love words, well selected, sparingly and carefully used. Poetry, to her, was a form of prayer and we approached it as if it were a piece of divinity.

Maybe my choice to write words destined to be set to music began with this basic belief; words are to be heard not seen. Sadly, it’s probably why I read so slowly as well. I must speak the words in my brain when I read a book. Auditory learner…I think that’s what they call it.

When my kids were growing up Mom bribed them to learn poetry: $5 for the first recital; memorized, appropriately recited, the number of stanzas determined by the age of the child. After that, each recital of the poem earned them a Quarter. She gifted them with their own personal copies of 101 Favorite Poems, her graceful handwriting in the front being cherished today as her arthritic hands no longer flow like they used to.

I learned, when our kids were learning to write, to read their work back to them. I had learned from the master how to make the words sound as they fell off the tongue. A child owns his writing best when he hears it respectfully and lovingly read aloud.

And so I stood in the Harris’ kitchen and read Luke his little essay about his trip to Mexico.

“Very nice, Luke! You are a writer indeed!”

He smiled his little crooked smile, his eyes twinkling as they looked into mine. Perhaps, little boy… perhaps there is a poet in there.


  1. I could hear Moms voice vividly read those words of you essay. I loved to hear her read your poetry. It was indeed magical. If I close my eyes I can also hear the voices of her sisters. Mom did teach us to love words and I love yours especially.

  2. I love this post! I remember you reading my papers and assignments out loud. It really did make it sound so much better. We did it even in college and graduate school remember? and when I couldn't call you because it was 3 in the morning and my assignment was due the next day I would read it out loud to myself, just to try to get the effect and make sure it made sense. Writing never was torturous for me and I am pretty sure I have you to thank for that. Also, I love that Gram had us memorize poems. Actually yesterday I pulled out my old 101 famous poems. I'm so lucky to have you and Gram to teach me the power of words. And if ever there was a master of words it is you my mother!

  3. I wish I had thought to do that. When I teach writing, I tell people, read these things out loud before you call it done. You will hear what works and what doesn't. Where you stumble or stall, you need to edit to the bone. Listen to your own words. But i never thought to do this for my children.