For my response I’ll give you the first two verses of this four-verse epic by Edgar Guest.
NOTHING TO LAUGH AT
‘Taint nothin’ to laugh at as I can see!
If you’d been stung by a bumble bee
an’ your nose was swelled an’ it smarted, too,
you wouldn’t want people to laugh at you.
If you had a lump that was full of fire,
like you’d been touched by a red hot wire
an’ your nose spread out like a load of hay,
you wouldn’t want strangers who come your way
to ask you to let the see the place
an’ laugh at you right before your face.
What’s funny about it, I’d like to know?
It isn’t a joke to be hurted so!
An’ how was I ever on earth to tell
that the pretty flower which I stooped to smell
in our backyard was the very one
which a bee was busily working on?
An’ just as I got my nose down there
he lifted his foot an’ kicked for fair,
an’ he planted his stinger right into me
But it’s nothin’ to laugh at as I can see.
Our weather was doing “breezy” earlier this morning. Now the wind has stepped up some and to me it seems more like “gale.” What do you think? Would you still call winds 40 kmph with gusts up to 60 kmph — 26, gusts to 39mph — breezy? Or downright windy?
With dark gray clouds moving in, it feels like we went from June to the end of September in a day. However, looking out my window I see the lilacs are in bloom and robins are foraging on the lawn. When I was out I heard wrens singing from branches beside their little birdhouses. And I have a number of itchy insect bites after my planting session yesterday. So there’s no doubt about the season.
Years ago the poet Helen Hunt Jackson wrote: O suns and skies and clouds of June, and flowers of June together Ye cannot rival for one hour October’s bright blue weather.
To each his own, they say. Bug bites notwithstanding, I’ll take June.
To me this is such an inspiring, healthy, upbeat word that I want to write something about it before my day is done.
I was thinking about a fellow Canadian we have a lot of respect for: journalist and author Conrad Black. When he writes, his articles are informative and what my husband and I consider to be a fair and sensible take on his subjects.
This evening, however, I’m thinking of one particular aspect of his life: the experiences he had during the time he was an inmate in one of Uncle Sam’s jails.
A bit of background:
Conrad Black once owned a chain of newspapers in Canada, some in the US, with shares in the Telegraph group in England and a couple of newspapers in Australia. He was living and working in the States when he was arrested and according to Google, “convicted in July 2007 on three counts of mail and wire fraud and one count of obstruction of justice” Mr Black spent 29 months in a Florida prison before being granted bail. When his case came before the Supreme Court, the Court declared the statute under which he was convicted to be unconstitutional. Charges against him were dismissed and he returned to Canada. However, the case against him is not relevant to the direction of this post.
So what does a journalist do when he’s incarcerated? He writes about it, naturally. I read several articles he wrote while he was in prison, and one in particular has stayed with me. That’s where I want to go with this post.
While he was in prison, he just didn’t sit around writing articles. He spend a fair bit of his time teaching other prisoners to read and write — and in giving an education, he got an education. In interacting with the other prisoners, he got a better picture of the workings of the US justice system. In particular, how it works for poor, illiterate men.
Needless to say, he didn’t come away with a high regard for the education system where so many underprivileged children fall through the cracks. This isn’t always the fault of the schools; sometimes there’s just no encouragement from home — no home even. But it’s sad to see that North American schools have been abandoning the basics in favor of the fluff and passing on those who really need help. Illiteracy among Canadians born and raised and schooled here is shocking.
Mr Black, after listening to his fellow inmates, concluded that if you haven’t got the smarts to defend yourself in a court of law, your chances of being convicted are definitely higher. I’ve read a few stories about poor illiterate blacks who barely understood the proceedings being falsely convicted, especially in the South. I don’t think this is so very rare.
He also wrote that if you haven’t got a basic education so you can get a job and earn a decent wage, your chances of ending up in jail are a lot higher. And re-offending. No news there.
Which comes back to my point about respect. Respect for others comes from learning about them as real people. Self-respect, the ability to stand up and face the world, to get ahead, comes from learning, too. It’s pretty hard to keep your head above water if you don’t have a solid rock to stand on. Like basic “Readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.”
I’ve seen this. I’ve a cousin who can’t read her bank statement or a business letter, and couldn’t begin to understand this post. Medical issues are total confusion. When her purse was stolen she didn’t report it because she’s scared of dealing with the police, in case they ask her questions she can’t understand. Lack of remedial classes and a poor home combined to hinder her schooling.
I respect Mr Black for his efforts to work with these men and to give them the basics — and the self-respect — they’d need to build a life outside the prison walls. And I respect and applaud all the folks out there who have taken the time to teach, to mentor, to work with, folks who need a helping hand. They are a mighty army, working unseen.
Which brings me to my friend Margaret’s poem. I’m using it with the confidence that if my dear friend were alive, she’d give her permission. She and her husband Milton were just such people as she describes here.
Quiet Folk by Margaret Penner Toews
Some folks there are who, quiet, go about Unseen, unheard, unknown sowing kernels digging wells building bridges picking stones raising altars
…planting poignant thoughts in ordinary talk about His Presence, …dig, and leave no signature, while others draw and drink, …building bridges over chasms, deeply cut by hate and color, creed and prejudice …removing stumbling stones of cruelty, indifference and scorn along the road, so those who walk in darkness will not fall …erecting altars by their hearths, in secret closets, or on busy thoroughfares.
Quietly these folks ‘deliver cities’ (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15) but no one knows and no one will remember… (most certainly not they themselves)
…Except for God…and He will never be a debtor. He takes a leisurely eternity to give rewards.
Seeing this prompt, one might launch into the latest news in the US, but my thinking goes to that old poem, “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight,” written by an imaginative sixteen-year-old girl from Michigan in 1867, Rose Hartwick Thorpe.
This story supposedly took place during the English War of the Roses. A young woman’s sweetheart is imprisoned for some fault and sentenced to be shot that night at the ringing of the curfew bell. Our young heroine, trusting General Cromwell will pardon him — but Cromwell may come too late — rushes to the church sexton and begs him not to ring the curfew bell.
The sexton insists on doing his duty and turns her away, so she sneaks into the bell tower and when the sexton pulls the rope to ring the bell, she declares that, “Curfew must not ring tonight,” and grasps the bell clapper. Bashed back and forth, she bravely holds on until the sexton gives up. When Cromwell arrives, hears her story and sees her injuries, his heart is touched and he pardons the young man.
This poem was one of Queen Victoria’s favorites, according to Wiki.
It may seem odd that this old poem instantly comes to me, but the penchant is genetic. I love poetry, my Mom F (nee Vance) loved poetry; apparently her mother and father enjoyed reciting long epic poems; and her Grandmother Smith likewise. My Vance uncles were keen storytellers and cousin Linda is working on her own tales, having written down most of her Dad’s stories. I don’t know if there’s actually such a thing as a poetic gene, but evidence would lean that way.
It used to be that school children were given long poems to memorize; this task was supposed to sharpen young minds. Often the verse came with a dash of humor, like this one by Anon., to sweeten the effort:
“The little boys were awfully strong
when Father was a boy.
They’d weed the cornfields all day long
when Father was a boy.
And when the day at last was o’er
they’d go and do up every chore,
Then come and beg to work some more
when Father was a boy.”
I believe young minds were improved by this exercise. Moreover, the concept in a good poem can ripple for centuries. Writers and speakers still echo the sympathetic wisdom of Bobby Burns in his poem, Ode to a Mouse:
“The best-laid plans of mice and man go oft astray
and leave us not but grief and pain for promised joy.”
I sat down awhile ago to begin, a short story, thinking I’d like to do one of these three-short-paragraph ones, and I was going to pick a quote as my inspiration. But my plans went awry and I ended up with a long, maybe soppy, tale.
Here’s the quote I chose:
“What is defeat? Nothing but education, nothing but the first step to something better.” — Wendell Philips
And here’s the tale I wrote to illustrate it:
THE LOSER WINS
“Hey, girl. Why are you looking so sad? Lost your best friend.”
Finch looked up at the teen leaning on the door frame. One of the Senior boys. She swiped at a tear. “What do you care,” she grumbled.
“No, really, you look shattered. What’s bothering you.”
She glared at him, but could see he honestly wanted to know, so she spilled her sad story. “We played baseball at recess. I hate baseball! I’m not good at it and the others all know it, so when it came time to pick teams, I was picked last. In fact, I wasn’t really picked; I just ended up on Jenia’s team because I was the only one left. She rolled her eyes like ‘Do I have to.’ Then she says, ‘Okay, come on then,’ like I was such a zero. I was, like, totally humiliated.”
“Hey, that’s tough. Some people don’t do tact. They care zip about anyone else’s feelings.”
“That’s her. Miss Always-the-Leader. Then when we played, I was so nervous I couldn’t hit anything, and the others on the team grumbled straight time about me being so slow. The teacher told them to ‘be nice,’ but they just did it when she wasn’t looking. I don’t ever wanna go back to school again.”
“I know where you’re coming from. I got the same thing when I was a twig.”
“You! But you’re a natural at baseball. I’ve seen you play and you make great hits and catches.”
“Now, yeah, but I remember singing the same song as you. Back when I was in grade school, I was the last one picked. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hit. But I really wanted to play so I joined a team playing sandlot baseball. It was misery. I was slow; I fumbled; if I hit the ball it was luck.”
Finch stared at him. “I don’t believe it. What happened!”
“I was ready to quit after the second game, but one of the dads, Bill, was acting as umpire, and he saw I was in the dumps. So after the game he came over and gave me a hug. Then he rattled off this bit of wisdom. I’ve typed it up and pasted it on my wall.”
‘What is defeat? Nothing but education, nothing but the first step to something better’.
“I got a life-lesson that day, thanks to Bill, who cared enough to help me out. He told me I wasn’t going to just drop into a game and be a star. He said, ‘If you wanna get good at baseball – or anything else in life – you gotta work at it.’ He got me and a couple of other boys to meet him a couple evenings a week at the ball park and we’d practice. He brought his young boys and met us there for a few weeks, explained the game, the moves, and worked with us. After that we went back on the team and all three of us are good players now.”
“Wow! You were lucky. Not all dads are like that.”
“I didn’t have a dad – and I needed one badly. I think he caught that. Same with the others. He did what he could to set us, and his own boys, on a better path.” He fell silent and his smile told Finch he was remembering those good times.
“And maybe you got an education today, if you take it that way.”
“Huh! So what have I learned? I’m a loser? Nobody wants me on their team?”
“You found out you can’t just jump in and be awesome. You can’t be a fast runner if you don’t regularly run. You can’t be a great hitter if you don’t regularly work at it. Have you got a friend or kid brother or sister that’ll play ball with you sometimes so you can get some practice pitching and hitting?”
“And take up running. Work at it when you have some free time and you’ll get faster. I promise you. What that dad told me back then has held true for everything I’ve tried so far. Playing ball. Good grades. Making friends. Staying out of trouble. Life isn’t going to hand it to you; you gotta work for it.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“So don’t let today get you down. Call it an education. Do something with what you’ve learned.” He reached down to give her a hand up.
A fresh wave of courage washed over Finch. She was ready to begin again. She reached up and took his hand. “I’ll try.” She let him pull her to her feet. “Thanks a lot…for what you said…and for caring.”
“Sure. See you around.” With a quick wave he headed off.
If Finch hadn’t seen him on the senior boys’ team, she could almost have believed he was an angel.