Poem Recital, the Shame and the Glory



I started out as a child. A shy child.

Introverted was the word for it. And it did not go unnoticed, in particular among the teachers and staff at Saltonstall school. I am sure that the word is written down somewhere in my school records.

I was in the eighth grade my last year at Saltonstall. The top of the heap. Next year would mean high school and starting out on the bottom rung all over again. The concensus among the conspirators was that I needed some responsibility, and more points of contact with my fellow students. So the solution was my appointment as head of sales for the school fundraiser.  Chocolate bars ahoy and record keeping galore.

I did not learn until later that the fix was in. I learned about it from Jimmy who worked on the project with me.  I think Jimmy felt cheated at first, because the position would have been his otherwise. But over the course of our time working together, a mutual respect grew between us. Funny as I think about it now, it was the first inkling of what I would later do for a living.  Counting beans.  Or with the advent of computers, coding beans.

It all went well and so did everything else in the run up to graduation. I was selected from my class to take the lead in the class presentation at the last school assembly. I was assigned the recitation of a poem as the close. It wasn’t the Kipling poem “If’” but it was something akin to it.

The day of the event came with consternation and worry growing with each tick of the clock. We were herded from our class to the backstage area where we awaited the rise of the curtain. The auditorium was filled with families and friends and the other classes.  My family was there and witnessed it.

All went well and smoothly up until the time I stepped forward to center stage. There with all eyes on me, I commenced to recite the poem by heart. I got out one, maybe two lines, and froze.  My mind went blank. And all these faces were focused on me in the silence. And as the silence lengthened, my embarrassment and my shame grew.

The teacher who had charge of the ceremony, and had rehearsed us, took a sheet of paper from her lectern and walked up to the edge of the stage, and  beckoned to me to come take a copy of the poem to read. I could feel the sympathy of those sitting in the audience going out to me.

I looked at her, and the printed page held out to me, and felt worse still. She waved it again.  I motioned my refusal of the offer with my hands and a shake of my head. And started over again, from the top. Line after line in the slow deliberate rhythm of the piece. All the way to its completion.

As I retreated to the back of the stage, the audience saluted me with applause. A taste of glory but overshadowed by the sting of failure.

And even though I was awarded a scholastic prize, the Henry M Cunney award, I remained stuck in a slough of despond.

All in all, it certainly kept me from thinking more highly of myself. On the plus side, it kept me humble. But on the other hand, I remained shy.