Miss Barrett’s Hoax

I listen to the beautiful music as I consider a suitable subject on which to spend time tonight, but the music intrudes. No. Intrudes is not the right description. It’s more as if the music enters the stream of thought and hijacks it, carries it away. But, I always listen to music when I write, having started the habit many years ago. I was just a junior in high school…
Miss Barrett understood teenagers. By that, I mean that she realized that most of us had a healthy disdain for poetry. But, she was an English teacher and the curriculum makes a requirement of an English teacher: she must instruct her classes in the hated art form. For us, it was a fate worse than death to receive an assignment which included any hint of the word “poem”. The groans would begin with the first mention of the vile thing and would increase exponentially with each subsequent repetition of the word. Because of that, although I would assume that her preference might have run to the classics, she had determined to take a path which was crafted to draw in our sixteen and seventeen year-old minds and coax us into enjoying poetry, waiting to spring the trap until no retreat on our part was possible.
The spinster teacher invited us to bring our favorite popular recordings (why yes, they were vinyl records!) to listen to while we worked in class. Then, sneakily, she would begin to talk about the lyrics of the songs being played, asking us to discuss the meter and the rhyme, along with the overall theme of the poe…Oh, I almost said the dirty word! Well, you get the idea. Before we knew it, we had worked our way through lyrics of James Taylor and Jim Croce, to say nothing about David Gates and his band called Bread. Linda Ronstadt and Three Dog Night, along with the Beatles and Carly Simon soon were tackled. More followed and still more. Before the end of the year, that lady had us asking to talk about poetry!
I remember taking one of my wandering treks through the surrounding countryside sometime during that year, quoting and singing the lyrics to several of the hit songs which that band called Bread had recorded. I memorized poetry! Not because I was forced to do it, but because I wanted to. Surprisingly, the other day when one of those songs came on the “oldies station” as we drove down the road, I sang the words right along with Mr. Gates. Forty years later, I still remember the lyrics! That sneaky Miss Barrett made me like poetry! Worse, she made me want to commit it to memory.
But tonight, the song I am listening to ends and I am jerked back to reality. I thought I was safe, listening to classical music. I chose one of my favorite pieces, the Piano Concerto #2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is, in my opinion, one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music written. Surely no lyrics would intrude into this! But just the same, there are words going through my head…”All by myself, don’t wanna be all by myself anymore…” I first heard the pop song in 1975, having no idea at that time that the melody was based on this spectacular work, written by the composer around 1900. As I listened tonight to the masterful treatment of the piece by the pianist, accompanied by the gorgeous tonality of the strings and wind instruments in the orchestra, I couldn’t keep the words from injecting themselves at the appropriate (or inappropriate) place. No doubt, this is still the work of that sneaky English teacher, Miss Barrett.
I will readily admit that finally, as the years have passed, I can openly enjoy poetry. It doesn’t even have to be set to music, although that helps me to remember the words. The good lady’s tactics worked. She took a poetry-hater and made me enjoy poems. An examination of her scam, her stratagem if you will, gives us some instruction for use in other walks of life. She took that which was odious to us and hid it inside something we loved. No one had to ask us to like the pop music of the day. We were already hooked. What she recognized was that we would sit still for lessons seemingly built on the foundation of the music we loved. All the while, unbeknownst to us, construction was underway on a very different foundation–the foundation of literature. Through a simple ruse, a little sleight of hand, the deed was done and we were hers.
But, the device works both in constructive and in destructive ways, does it not? The pet is ill, so we hide the medication in a piece of meat, a Trojan horse of sorts, to deliver the death blow to the illness inside. None the wiser, the pet devours the proffered treat, easily swallowing the pill which would have been next to impossible to force down the animal’s gullet otherwise. Thus, the cure is achieved. But on the other hand, the casino in the neighboring town offers luxurious accommodations and gourmet meals at bargain prices to lure the patrons in, enticing them further with visions of easy money and grand winnings. The eventual result is disappointment for many and outright disaster for quite a number, leaving them impoverished. The sugar-coated offer hides a price which is much too high for all of them.
The same tactic. Vastly different results.
I can’t help but be reminded of the words spoken by the Teacher, as He sent His disciples away. “I am sending you out as sheep among the wolves.” If He had stopped there, we might wonder at His cruelty, leaving them to be consumed by the evil ones they would find in the wide world. He continued though, “Be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.” They are words for us to live by today also. We are to be on our guard against the Trojan horses, the artifices of those who would entrap us, all the while seeking no harm to them.
Like Miss Barrett, we seek ways to teach and to win the trust of those around us, to do good for them. All the while, we must be on our guard against those who are only out for their own good and for our harm.
I promise that I will try to stifle my urges to quote song lyrics to you. But if the music to “If” by Bread comes on the radio, you’ll see (and possibly hear) me bellowing out the lyrics right along. Who knew poetry could be so much fun?
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way.”
(from “Mary Poppins”~Walt Disney film~1964~Robert Sherman/Richard Sherman, composers)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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