“The Red Wheelbarrow”

When I was in junior high school I had two favorite teachers. One of them was my English teacher. Looking back, it still difficult to see it as just just your normal schoolgirl crush, and as one of the fortunate side-effects this teacher also further fanned the flames of my love of literature. (Actually, both of them did, though the other one taught biology.)

I remember very well how parents veto’d his idea of our reading things like Kurt Vonnegut‘s “Slaughterhouse 5“, Joseph Heller‘s “Catch-22” or  Tom Wolfe’s* “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in class, deeming their content much too advanced and controversial for our impressionable 9th grade intellects. Although we ended up reading John Knowles‘ “A Separate Peace” in class, he established an after-school reading club for those of us who (with parental permission) felt ready and willing to tackle something a bit headier.

There is so much that I could say about that particular time in my life, as well as about my friendship with Julie, which was such a significant cornerstone in my life then. In many ways the books we read – as well as the music we listened to – saved and shaped our lives.

me & julie. graduation party

We regularly walked home from school together, talking about this book or that. We usually stopped at a street corner equidistant between our houses for at least an hour to continue our talk. My mom – who worked 3rd shift at the time – knew to drive past that particular street corner on her way to work to shoo me home, where I would more often than not down a quick snack before getting on the phone to pick up the stitch of my conversation with Julie where we had left off at the corner. She traveled to Germany to visit relatives; I traveled to Germany as an exchange student. Both under the influence of culture shock, it was my idea to graduate at the end of the 11th grade and simple put high school behind me. She followed suit.

Aside from the novels we read, this English teacher open my eyes poetry. Not the kind of fare I was used to being served by my other English teachers, but poetry that hit me like a visceral flash of lightning; both clearing a path of appreciation for the poetry I had read to date, as well as starting me on my path towards the discovery of my own poetic voice. Names like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Just recently I picked up my bilingual volume of American lyric from the 17th century to the present. Leafing through it, I realized just how long it has been since I’ve read some of my older favorites. How did that happen?

One I always loved for its sheer simplicity is this one by William Carlos Williams:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

upon

a red wheet

barrow

glazed with rain

water

beside the white

chickens.

~~~

(* Years later I actually ran into Tom Wolfe at a Frankfurt Hotel during the Frankfurt Book Fair – white suit and all!)

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