These James Whitcomb Riley Days

My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Baker, read James Whitcomb Riley poems, along with other Hoosier literature, after noon recess every day.

She brought poems and stories to life in a way that made my ears and mind tingle.

However, she enforced “rest time.” We had to lay our heads on our desks while she read, an indignity that smacked of kindergarten naptime. After all, we were nine-year-olds, soon to reach double digits.

We didn’t need any dumb rest time.

Decades later, I realized that after policing a playground resembling a crash derby without cars, then facing a similar classroom scenario, she might need the break.

Not all of Riley’s poems topped my “favorites” list. Braver classmates asked Mrs. Baker to read “Little Orphant Annie.” Why did they like those repeated references to “gobble-uns” that would get us if we didn’t shape up?

I already slept with my knees near my shoulders to avoid giant spiders lurking at the foot of my bed. Adding gobble-uns to my nighttime freak-out list didn’t induce much sleep.

Even more frightening, Little Orphant Annie had to do lots of housework.

The James Whitcomb Riley poem I liked best was “When the Frost Is on the Punkin’,” which celebrates autumn in Indiana. That poem tasted good, like tangy cider, and still does:

“But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.”

However, James Whitcomb Riley never would have received an A on a grammar test. He would have been the very first down in a spelling bee.

Mrs. Baker and other teachers deluged us with homework, tests and even demerits to ensure my classmates and I spoke and wrote correctly.

Yet my teacher read us his poems almost daily.

Grown-ups never made sense.

Despite my confusion, James Whitcomb Riley’s magic sang in my head and heart. A Hoosier like me, he wrote about the land and life I knew and loved. He instilled pride into us for who we were — kids in a country school in a county where farmers helped feed a nation and the world.

His poems still resonate with me, especially on a crisp, fall Indiana morning with a shimmer of silver on my lawn, and gold, russet, and scarlet leaves flying in the chilly, sunny breeze. James Whitcomb Riley still reminds me of all I cherish in my native state.

Even if he didn’t know how to spell.

 

 

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Did your childhood teachers read to you? What was your favorite read-aloud story/poem?

 

2 thoughts on “These James Whitcomb Riley Days

  1. Karla Akins

    My mother read us books — not just any books — from the time we were tiny she read the classics to us including Treasure Island! I think I was only about six years old. She must have left out some of the language because I remember being shocked when I visited it as an adult. I still remember “dead man’s chest.” I didn’t really know what it meant. I think her reading to me so young was her way of getting to read as she loved to read. But I also think it made writing good meter easier for me than some. To this day words have a rhythm I crave. And as for poetry, I’ve always loved it. I got my start as a writer in 4th grade writing it and my teachers thought I was good at it. My favorite lyrical poet is Edgar Guest. But my favorite all-time poet is Emily Dickinson. When I discovered her as a kid I was absolutely fascinated and obsessed with the way she interrupted cadence with her quirky turns of phrase. I still adore her work. And as for Riley’s spelling? I think that’s a Hoosier thang. My grammar went downhill after I moved to Wabash county! There are some turns of phrase that have stuck to those who moved here from the Appalachian Mountains. These idioms, pronunciations, and bad order of syntax are tenacious and stubborn, handed down from several generations. Like a tick on a hound dog, they ain’t goin’ anywherez!

    Reply
    1. rachael Post author

      Wow, Karla, your mom gave you a treasure when you were little! (Though I imagine she excelled as a censor as well 🙂 ) No wonder you’re a writer with a great feel for rhythm!

      I’ve always loved poetry, too, and can still remember a couple I memorized during my childhood. Actually, I wrote poems before I wrote stories. Not long ago, one of my grade school teachers sent me a poem I’d written about October and Halloween–it was sheer genius, I tell you, genius! Someday, when I find myself in blessed Leisureland (ha!), I’d really like to write more poetry.

      Yep, the Hoosierisms do show up, don’t they! But that’s just part of our Indiana charm. They go right along with pop (not soda), basketball fanaticism and Frisbee-sized tenderloin sandwiches.

      May your day be filled with peace and poetry, and thanks for commenting.

      Reply

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