Mixing memory with desire: Poetry and public schools

"April is the cruellest month, ..."

IMG_1291Nearly every year on April 1, I re-read T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It’s one of my favorite poems, and while I pay homage to it by quoting and requoting lines from it in conversation year-round, I also like to sit down and read it through periodically. The opening line, quoted above, is of course why I choose April 1 for this pleasure. (Also, April is National Poetry Month, so there’s another reason, though not the one that drives me.)

This annual ritual feels a bit like sitting down with an old friend and catching up. I’m always a bit astonished by something I had forgotten was in the poem, and it’s always got some new discovery to offer me.

Actually, it’s like sitting down with two old friends: One is the poem itself; the other is the professor in whose college class I first read it. Professor Sanders taught modern poetry at the University of Illinois, and I can honestly say that he taught me how to read poetry. To this day, I’m not sure I could say how he did this, and I most certainly don’t think I’m able to pass that gift on to the next person. Nevertheless, he did. I walked into his first class liking poetry in the way that a high school graduate who has toyed with the idea of an English major might like poetry: I had read some poetry and liked the feeling it left me with, liked the way that it made me think about words, liked its ability to apply a single word’s multiple meanings simultaneously. But I had no idea how to dig deeply into a poem to extract meaning from below the surface. I walked out at the end of the semester with that ability—that, and a textbook (maybe more than one) chockfull of margin scribblings, a long list of new-to-me poets whose work I wanted to continue reading, and a lifelong thirst for new poetry.

That’s an amazing gift, and I’m reminded of it every April, when I can practically hear Professor Sanders’ voice reading parts of “The Waste Land” aloud in class. This is a man who literally changed my life for the better, who taught me a life skill that has brought me happiness for many, many years. This is my meager thanks to him.

A salute to teachers everywhere

As it happens, as I read “The Waste Land” on April 1 this year, Chicago’s public school teachers were walking picket lines in a one-day strike aimed at pressuring the state of Illinois to improve funding for public education. Illinois has the most unfair state funding formula in the nation, according to the national advocacy group The Education Trust, with a huge gap between the amount of money spent funding students in wealthy districts versus poor districts. In my eyes, that’s just wrong. I would much rather pay higher taxes.

But education funding, or lack thereof, is not only a problem in Illinois, and it isn’t limited to K-12 institutions. University tuition and fees are skyrocketing, and many students take on unreasonable amounts of debt to pay for college. Higher education is becoming increasingly difficult to afford, increasingly accessible only to those with private financial resources.

That’s wrong, too. Public education is a public good. All of society benefits from a better educated populace. And those of us who went to college when student loans were cheap have a responsibility to pay that favor forward. We owe current and future generations of students the opportunity to attend universities to open their minds and improve their futures.

My college education helped prepare me not just to make my way in the workforce, but also to contribute in meaningful ways to society. It brought me together with diverse groups of people, and exposed me to new ideas and philosophies. And it taught me new skills… including how to read poetry. I’m a happier and better person today because I went to college, and I’m able to give a lot more to my community and my country as a result.

So it’s hard to escape the irony that I’m able to sit home and read “The Waste Land” when thousands of teachers are walking picket lines to make the point that we don’t adequately fund our system of public education.

I say, raise my taxes. It’s worth it.

Whadd'ya think? Leave a Reply.