How my 7th grade teacher taught me to appreciate poetry and showed me that Paul Simon is a great poet
By Larry Whitler, Jan 5 2017 08:04PM
Teachers have a difficult job. If you are a teacher, thank you for choosing to do what you do.
I don’t know how teachers reach their students the way they do. When we are children, and especially later on when we are teenagers, we can be so unreachable. We’re easily distracted, we’re easily bored, we’re concerned that we appear “cool” to our peers, we can be arrogant, we can be moody, we have crushes, we can even be simply tired. So how any teacher ever reaches us when we are in their class is somewhat of a miracle. The teachers that do reach us have done something pretty amazing so, again, if you are a teacher, thank you.
Seventh grade was my first year in a school which had us students changing classes every forty five minutes or so. It was winter in early 1968. I was twelve years old, soon to turn thirteen. The school I attended was called Brookside Junior High School and was located in Merrick, New York. I used to ride my bicycle to school with my friends and lock it into the bicycle rack.
Brookside Junior High School was a two story building. From the entrance of the school closest to the bicycle rack I could look up and see the classroom of one of my favorite teachers. Her name was Mrs. Barr. She taught English.
For the forty five minutes I sat in Mrs. Barr’s classroom each day I learned a lot about this language that I’ve spoken since I said my first words. Mrs. Barr helped me understand that language wasn’t just about communicating but that it was also about expression and the conveyance of human emotions through words.
When Mrs. Barr told the class that we were going to learn about poetry the students let out a low, but audible, groan. Poetry? Nobody wanted to learn about poetry. Okay, maybe a limerick with the word ‘Nantucket’ cleverly setting up a funny punchline (to an adolescent, anyway). But REAL poetry? No no no! We’re all going to fall asleep. How could she POSSIBLY interest us in POETRY?!!
How? Well, she was a great teacher. And she knew EXACTLY how to interest us in poetry.
Mrs. Barr opened up the little record player that looked like a suitcase when it was closed, she removed an LP vinyl disc from a white paper sleeve, and she placed the record on the spindle of the turntable. I’m guessing she intentionally didn’t let us see the album cover because she wanted to surprise us.
We had heard records played in class many times before. Typically we heard records with monotone voice actors reading Shakespeare or Robert Frost. The spoken-word records commonly played in the classrooms of my adolescence did not excite me very much. I owned none of them but often checked them out from the public library as a shortcut to actually reading a book assignment. Even in my own home I would fall asleep trying to listen to them.
Before putting the record player arm down onto the now spinning vinyl, Mrs. Barr looked at the students in the class and said, “I wanted to share with you some poetry that is written by a new poet. He’s a young man who grew up not far from here and is making a name for himself with his poetry.”
When Mrs. Barr lowered the needle onto the record, the amazing sounds of Simon And Garfunkel suddenly filled the classroom. The cut she was playing was the song, “I Am A Rock,” written by Paul Simon.
I don’t know about the other students, but every cell in my body woke up. It was as if a refreshing spring of fresh water had burst into the classroom and refreshed my very being. I loved it. The lilting acoustic guitar intro, the contemporary singing style of Paul Simon, the amazing harmonies when Art Garfunkel joined in, all reached my ears with a colorful brightness that stirred everything I seem to be about. Now THIS was a great class!
Wow. Mrs. Barr was so cool. Simon And Garfunkel were everywhere in those days. They had songs on the radio, giant posters of them hung up in the record store at the Roosevelt Field Mall, and they even were on the soundtrack to the movie, “The Graduate.”
But, was THIS poetry?
Mrs. Barr then handed out sheets of paper to everyone in the classroom. When each student had the paper on their desk Mrs. Barr said, “I have just handed you the words to the song we just heard.”
Sure enough, there it was: “I AM A ROCK – by Paul Simon.”
“Does anyone want to read the words aloud for the class?” Mrs. Barr asked as she looked for a volunteer.
I raised my hand. “I’ll read it,” I said.
“Okay, Larry, thank you.”
I read the words. Only a few of the lines actually rhymed. The words, when read aloud without the musical accompaniment, made me feel sorry for the writer. Did Paul Simon really feel this way? Did he really “have no need for friendship” as the song states? Did he really disdain laughter and loving?
Then Mrs. Barr addressed the classroom. “What do you think this poem is saying?”
One at a time my fellow classmates told their thoughts about the lyric I had just finished reading. Some of them said, “I think he is lonely.” Another said, “I think he was hurt and wants to be alone.” Still another comment was, “Maybe he just likes being alone. Maybe he’s a hermit.”
Mrs. Barr said, “You are all correct. There is no wrong answer.” She went on to explain that poetry, like any literature, only succeeds if it stimulates some kind of an emotional reaction from the reader. She further explained that our reactions to songs, poems, books, movies, etc., are often connected to something deep within ourselves that enables us to relate.
I was moved. For the first time in my life I actually understood why people like poetry.
In Paul Simon’s case he was more than a skillful poet. He was also a skillful composer. In other words, Paul Simon was, and still is, a skillful songwriter.
But Mrs. Barr really made me see an important thing. She made me see that a truly great song did more than string words together just as a way for a singer to deliver a melody. A truly great song carries an emotion to the listener through both the lyrical content and the melody and chord accompaniment.
Words like, “I love you, you love me, we go together like the birds and bees,” don’t move anyone. They don’t stir any emotion. They don’t reach deep within us and connect us to anything. But when Paul Simon wrote, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me,” it is an expression that we can relate to. Even at the young age of twelve going on thirteen.
Like many people my age, I became a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel and of the writings of Paul Simon. Just as Janis Ian’s songs are timeless, so are Paul Simon’s.
The melody to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” combined with that reassuring lyric gave us strength. The playfulness of melody and lyric in “You Can Call Me Al” or “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” made us smile and helped us get through our daily grinds.
Thank you, Paul Simon, for shaping our world.
And thank you, Mrs. Barr, wherever you are. You will never know how you helped me figure out that some songs are nothing more than little ditties and other songs are true literary masterpieces. You showed me that Paul Simon, and other songwriters like him, are more than the disposable pop stars the fickle record industry tries to sell us. Paul Simon was, and is, a master poet and a true contemporary composer.
“Only a truly great songwriter could write 'Marvelous Novelists.' The gentle way you sing this gem of a tune just makes me grin from ear to ear with giddy joy. Brilliant.”
- Sills & Smith, ReverbNation Artist (Mar 23, 2012)