Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tribute to Mr. Harris

I recently posted on my Facebook page that I lamented how people didn't read poetry anymore, since I like writing and reading poetry and wouldn't mind having more readers to share with. Someone corrected me, noting that a lot of people read and write poetry still. Only now, it's songs.

That exchange brought me back in time to my high school English class. This is exactly what Mr. Harris was doing when he would have us listen to and analyze the lyrics of songs like Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel or She's Leaving Home by the Beatles.

Mr. Harris became an influence in my life at a time when I needed that. He seemed to pay attention to me as a person at a time when I felt lost in the crowd.

On one occasion everyone in the class was asked this hypothetical question: If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be? I can't recall if that included people of all time or only present day times. We were then asked to say aloud whom we had written. When I said "me" there was quite a bit of mocking laughter. Mr. Harris literally had to hush the class so he could ask a thoughtful follow up. It was as if he knew I had more to my answer than mere conceit. I replied, "Because everybody in the world has problems. I'm just more familiar with my own and wouldn't have to learn how to deal with a whole new set of problems."

In retrospect it's interesting to note my maudlin problem-focused reply as opposed to an optimist's opportunity mindset. More importantly, Mr. Harris showed respect for me and believed I had something more going on inside. He drew it out in a sensitive manner so that over forty years later I recall the incident.

After one of our writing assignments in which everyone had to write a short story, he came up to me and asked permission to submit my story to a national fiction competition for high school students' works. The story didn't win any awards, but the recognition by Mr. Harris that it was worthy of extra attention proved exceedingly gratifying.

The story was about longing and desire and suffering, from the point of view of a stick of gum. It begins with my lying clothed next to another whom I loved but was unable to communicate with due to excessive shyness. I described the feelings of silent longing, but despaired of anything ever coming of it. As the story develops, continuing from the gum's point of view, I am separated from the one I love, stripped and put into a torturous situation. (I tried to describe all this the best I could without saying words like fingers, mouth, teeth, tongue.) In the end, she is also stripped and joins me, finding comfort in the midst of our harrowing situation by becoming one.

Great story? Probably a little much. But like the great writers I did have several variations on my ending, including one in which we were stuck under a lunch room table. I can't recall the real conclusion, though in retrospect I suspect it was weak.

Here's a poem/song by Paul Simon that we studied in Mr. Harris' English class one day. It became a vehicle for teaching the concept of alliteration, a poetic device that you can see in the line "withers with the wind." The song is simple, but with more to it than might initially meet the mind.

Leaves That Are Green

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this songI’m twenty-two now, but I won’t be for long
Time hurries on

And the leaves that are green turn to brown

And they whither with the wind

And they crumble in your hand


Once my heart was filled with love of a girl

I held her close, but she faded in the night

Like a poem I meant to write

And the leaves that are green turn to brown

And they wither with the wind

And they crumble in your hand


I threw a pebble in a brook

And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound

And the leaves that are green turn to brown

And they wither with the wind

And they crumble in your hand


Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello

Good-bye, Good-bye
Good-bye, Good-bye
That’s all there is

And the leaves that are green turn to brown


© 1965 Words and Music by Paul Simon


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