I was a short red head with freckles spanning from one cheek across the bridge of my nose to the other. It was second grade at a new school in a new part of town. My new teacher, Mrs.Rapa, was a heavy-set woman whose whole neck jiggled when she spoke; she always wore her hair in a bun atop her head, and the lady’s wardrobe consisted of colorful dresses that looked like they may have been someone’s paisley print sheets or curtains. I was not a good student, more inclined to flirt with the cute, taller blond girl who sat next to me than to pay attention to anything Mrs.Rapa had to say. Not to imply that I was a dumb kid, but not even paying attention to what I did sometimes had a price.
I walked up to Mrs.Rapa’s desk one day, in the middle of a writing assignment, and asked her, “How do I spell ‘book’?” Grumpily, without lifting her head she said aloud, “Class, how do you spell ‘book?”
In unison I hear twenty second grade voices say “B-O-O-K”.Mortified, I dropped my chin to my chest, sheepishly said “Oh” and retreated back to my desk.
I knew how to spell, I was a good reader, but like I said, sometimes I didn’t pay attention to what I was thinking. There was no way to win back my self respect that day, and so I went home, a red head freckle faced short kid who couldn’t spell.
That was a bitch of a year for me; I didn’t get any better at paying attention and my thoughtlessness caused a few more awkward moments. Thankfully not everyday can be the same, and it was one of those different days that I happened to be free of distraction as the teacher announced an upcoming poetry reading contest!
“It will be held at the end of the year so you have plenty of time to select a poem and practice” she said. This sounded like a lot of fun! I wasn’t sure what a poem was exactly, but I knew I could read, and I had something to prove.
The month was March and I had three months to select a poem and memorize it, plenty of time. The school library was a trailer, painted crimson red like the rest of the school. It was a nice place to go because it was behind the primary school buildings under some trees growing at the north end of the soccer field, quiet and serene. I would between two of four tall sycamores and up the ramp to the door and enter a dimly lit room with low book shelves on one side so that I could see out the windows that faced the open field. In the center of the library were a few long tables, on one of these were neat stacks of books and stapled together sheets of paper.
These were the schools selection of poems from which I would shuffle through trying to ferret out something of interest. The books were typical elementary level collections of dim-witted themes, family and monster’s in the closet or trick-or-treating, those sorts of things. Most of the unbound sheets of paper were of the same simplicity and I was looking for something fresh, something offbeat.
After a few days, many of the books had been checked out, and the individual poems picked through so that they were no longer in neat stacks, but strewn about the tables obviously disregarded by other contestants. I kept at my search not even seeing the titles on the sheets but searching the first few lines, looking for words that would marry the voice in my head. Sifting through a stack, one word caught my eye like a glimmer of fish scales at the surface of water catches the eye of an eagle; I backed up and started the poem from the beginning. “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow…” it read, and went on at a rhythm that flowed from my seven year old mouth in an uncanny ease.
It was the poppies that sold me though, for how was I to know the quality of this poem, or how it should be read? Perhaps the poem selected me? It mattered little, the match was made and I hurried home to begin my rehearsal.
I was soon reciting the poem to myself at every opportunity: this meant in between meals, between lessons, while standing in line at the hand ball board. Not even the hollow slap of the red rubber ball against the green wooden wall would break the cadence of my thoughts.
“…We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow…” as it went from line to line, tempo following the rhyme.
Eventually I got around to practicing for my mom as an audience. She was always delighted to listen, and surprisingly never offered a criticism or correction. Once a few weeks prior to the contest, the participants were called to a practice in front of their own class; by now the words were second nature, and I did not stumble or pause to remember by then what seemed to be my own words.
The poem, as it were, had great success at the time of its publishing, becoming the most popular poem to commemorate the dead soldiers of the Atlas, those who fought against the Axis nations. Its author John McCrae, died shortly after he wrote it, but lived long enough to see this poem published with overwhelming acceptance by not only Canada, his own country, but by Britain and the United States among others. As I have only ever seen this poem on the same sheet of paper with all of these facts accompanying it, I would have to say that I knew what the poem was about. Contrary to this obvious statement of meaning I doubt that a seven year old second grader who probably had a slight case of A.D.D. grasped the depth of what he was reading, but the poem was for the world, no just the fallen.
Finally, after all the reading and memorizing, rhyming and punctuating, honing and polishing, it was time. As the sun rose so did I, as one my age might do on Christmas morning looking for proof of Santa’s visit. I selected dark blue denim paints, a red T-shirt with a big gold star on the front, and over that wore my favorite article of clothing, a vest that had coco brown leather with four buttons on the front, and the same dark colored denim as my jeans from the shoulder seam back. I pulled on my clean white pro-wings and ate a breakfast of cereal and OJ as I waited for mom to finish getting ready to take me to school.
“Don’t forget to be here at 2:30”, I reminded her as I was exiting the car.
“I’ll see you then” she assured, “you’ll do great honey!”
“I know”, I said simply, not really sure if I meant this, but not sure I didn’t.
Finally at 1:30 the contestants were called into the properly named “multi-use room”, which uses included cafeteria, performance stage and indoor P.E. area when it rained too hard for us to go outside. People would have to cross the main school courtyard to enter two sets of large green doors forward at the side of the building; a third set of doors were located at the rear of the space. Inside the “Multi” were high-set windows that could only be opened by a long poll that ended in a hook which also drew back the curtains to let in the sun light. The walls were an unadorned off white color, same as the tile floor. The only contrast was the dark wooden stage at the front of the room. Set about three and a half feet above the floor it ran about thirty feet long and twenty feet wide. There was a thick forest green curtain that closed off the front five feet of stage and hid us away from the gathering audience. There were about twenty students in the competition, no grade or age categories, just every boy and girl for themselves. I felt a bit nervous, but competition was not on my mind, the poem was.
Finally, the curtain withdrew and after a short oratory by the principal and the introduction of judges who sat in the front row, the contest began. I noticed my mom had not arrived yet, and this worried me a bit. I knew deep down she would show, and about ten minutes late, she came through the back set of doors, gave a little wave and found herself some standing-room-only in the rear.
Student after student approached the microphone. Some stumbled and some recited in a monotone that caused a pause between their conclusion and the audience reaction, but most were just happy to be done and have a few applauds. I was close to the end of the line, thought not last, when I was called to center stage. I was suddenly aware of just how many people had shown. Though the room never looked large before, today it looked like an ocean of faces. I looked to my mom at the back of the room who mouthed “I love you” much to my embarrassment; I gave a little nod took a deep breath and began.
The room became hushed, and not only was the audience still, but I seemed to be quiet as well, not so much hearing my words as seeing myself, somehow removed while speaking to the masses who’s attention I commanded. The same boy who had walked, head hung low from embarrassing moments of deficient attention: this same boy who could not get the teacher’s attention for help with spelling, was now reading words that sunk into the hearts of his elders who heard the depth that I had missed.
“…If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” I concluded. At this the audience again took pause, and then applauds.
Returning to my seat I reflected on what I had just done; the culmination of my efforts had taken the shape of a performance that left me feeling spent. I gave everything, and I knew I did my best, and for the moment had forgotten this was a competition. When the last reader finished, and the audience became silent again the principal took his place as MC and proclaimed his pride in each of his students, and appreciation for all the family’s support. While he rambled on, talking at the parents, the judges were below speaking in low tones, gesturing at their papers, nodding or shaking their heads. Twenty kids sat on stage in rows neatly displayed for the onlookers to admire, awaiting the next more real part of this exhibit, where some would be called winners and others would not be called at all.
At last it was time to announce the results. As in every professional competition, the MC was handed an envelope, this one heavy with the fates of elementary schools kids esteem. One by one, fifth place announced, applauds. Fourth, applauds. The same for third and second, and by this time I was looking around talking to the winners sitting close by, congratulating my classmates on a job well done, and preparing myself to leave. I had a sense of disappointment, but was more concerned about locating my mom and vacating ASAP. Just then I heard something, something unfamiliar, unreal;
“And our first place reader, Eryn White of Mrs.Rapa’s second grade class with ‘In Flanders Fields’!”
“What?” I asked Judy who sat next to me. “You won!” she exclaimed excitedly, “Get up! You Won!”
I didn’t know what was happening, but in reaction to all the excitement I stood from my chair and walked to the man holding the biggest trophy this young man had ever seen! It was a golden man standing by a podium with a golden American flag jutting out of a marble base that had a little golden plaque engraved with the words “First Place” on the front. I suddenly noticed the crowd was on its feet and everyone was cheering! I had been the last boy standing in the dodge ball circle before and thought that felt like winning, but this was something more, this was real success! I looked out to my mother who with tears running down her face, again mouthed the words “I love you” and to this I raised my prize over my head in elation.