Freshman year at BYU, I made a random selection of classes when I registered. No one advised me, that I can recall, and if they did I must not have listened. I ended up with a graduate level art history class, and some other hefty courses, all of which added up to 16 credit hours. Classes, in general, were the last thing on my mind at that point. There was just so much newness there in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. So many new personalities, new places, new sights and sounds and smells. Even the air felt new against my skin. My hair was silky smooth in all that dryness. I remember thinking I had probably jumped the gun by hacking it off before I moved to the desert. My former waist length hair would have flowed so nicely away that horrid humidity of my hometown in PA.
At the top of the list of freshman newness was falling in love. Mmmm, delicious love, with its yummy kisses and stimulating conversation. The last thing on my mind were classes. Not that they were completely unimportant, just not prominently there. But I did think that my poetry class would be an exception. I was, after all, a poet.
I had received a scholarship/talent award from the university after winning the New Era Poetry Contest. They published about a half dozen of my little poems. Even Dave, all the way over in Italy, and well before I ever met him, recognized my name and picture in the New Era when they announced the winners. He was a missionary then, and I was the little sister of a guy he used to play ball with. I defined myself as a poet. My sense of self was polished with a way with words.
The class was taught by a professor whose name was well regarded, and whose poetry was beloved, especially by the professor himself. I went into the class confident in my abilities and pretty excited for the easy grade.
The easy grade did not come. Even the hard grade did not come. I recall the devastation of having my work critiqued flippantly before the class. I can still feel the sting of his scribbled handwriting in the columns beside the stanzas; stabbing exclamation points to deepen the wound.
At night, in tears, I decided to spend the money I did not have to call home. Calling home in those days required money by the minute, and our conversations were often planned and sparingly executed for the sake of the budget. But this night I did not care, because I needed to hear my mother’s voice. That voice that first read me poetry; the one that made my own third grade poems sound so…I don’t know…mature. Mom’s lips forming the words of anything anyone ever wrote made it seem so much better.
“No matter what I write, whether it’s what I feel I should write or whether I’m writing what I think he’ll like, he hates it!”
Mom listened. I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line. I ached to have her arms around me, her slender hands patting my back. She listened until I was done ranting.
“You take what he has to teach you, chew it up and see if there is anything worth swallowing. Then spit the rest out.”
I didn’t think there was anything worth swallowing from him. I was sure he was all ego and shallow mindedness. In the end I learned to release my ego and see if I could learn. And I believe I did, though I cannot for the life of me recall anything I wrote during that period, except for that one piece about Roman Duomo not needing to bow to God. In the end all that mattered to me was that the boy who gave me those yummy kisses wanted me to be his bride.
I’ve thought often of that advice mom gave me, what seems like a lifetime ago. I whisper it to myself, and to my own children. I let it echo in my head when I start comparing myself to others. I can hear her say, “You go ahead and see how you compare to the other people you admire. If there’s something good you can learn from such an exercise, then go ahead and swallow that. But you be sure to spit the rest of it out!” And she would probably add that most of it was worth spitting out.
For all those years I sat up with my children, helping them with their writing assignments, I could almost hear the echo of my own mother’s voice as I read their work aloud to them. Young mothers and fathers…this is a trick I will teach you right now: read your own children’s writings back to them. With your mature intelligent voice. With the poet’s voice. They will hear more clearly, and write more poetically, and love you more deeply because of it. And they will become better writers.
All of our children are fine writers, if I say so myself. I think they learned to love the lilt of the human voice as it pronounces word upon word, crafted artistically like literary Lego's. Well chosen tasty words united by poets at heart.
My mom used to bribe all her grand kids to memorize fine poetry. If they stood up straight, announced the title, the poet, and perfectly recited the poem (at least 8 lines long for the little ones…and they got more difficult as the kids aged)…then Gram gave them a crisp $5 bill. Thereafter, every time they recited the poem again, they got a Quarter.
All our children can recite to you poems for which they earned $5.
The money is gone.
The poetry remains.