Averyell A. Kessler
Bailey Junior High School, April 5, 1962
I’d just settled into my desk when Mr. M announced that we were going to memorize the Gettysburg Address. No surprise here. This was an annual event for 9th graders leaving his civics class and moving on to glory days at Murrah. I had hoped it would go away, but it didn’t.
“Why can’t we just write it out?” someone asked.
“It’s not the same,” he answered. “You’ll see.”
Only 30 days remained until exams and graduation, and I had no patience for school. April’s warm air was barreling into Jackson, kissing the azaleas, coaxing daffodils to open and transforming the brown grass edging Riverside Drive into lush green. Now the Gettysburg Address had shown up uninvited and unwelcome. It was one last hurdle before the grey walls of Bailey vanished into misty memory.
I was an old hand at memorization, starting early at Power School (old and new) with the ABC’s and Nick Nack Patty Whack, then progressing to multiplication flash cards (ugh) and spelling words, such as historical and Nebraska. Later, Frere Jacque and Cielito Lindo appeared. As always, the Presbyterians were ruthless, requiring multiple Bible verses and the Beatitudes, as well as The Westminster Catechism. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah was a toughie, but I can still recite the King James version with my eyes closed. I was prepared but unenthusiastic. Lincoln’s historic 272 words swung over my head like Poe’s pendulum.
“Do this, and get it over with,” I thought. “Can’t be that bad.”
As the days drifted by, my classmates muttered and complained, but Mr. M doubled down. He taught us about the particulars of the speech, when and where it was given and why those brief words are still riveted into the American consciousness. We examined the address line by line, as he explained its meaning and why it was such a wonder. One day, something clicked, and I realized I was in love with words. Not ordinary chit chat or banal textbook prose, but skillfully crafted, poetic words that rang like silver bells and turned dull thoughts into diamonds. I decided to stop complaining, pay attention and try harder.
When recitation day arrived, I was nervous. We all were. We sat in a sweltering classroom, (no AC back then) sweating like sun burnt hound dogs, as each of us stood, faced our classmates, and vaulted over the final hurdle. Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers…. It took three days, three very long days. Mr. M was his usual calm self, prodding the forgetful, giving clues when needed, smiling when one of us did it perfectly. Then I noticed something strange. His gradebook was missing. He wasn’t giving us a score. No one would fail, not even Tommy H., who’d written critical prompts on his palms in bright blue ink. Lincoln’s brilliant words were the last thing Mr. M would teach us, and he intended to make them count. We all passed with flying colors (or hurdling colors, maybe?), and marched out of Bailey’s cavernous auditorium clutching our graduation certificates.
I hope there’s another Mr. M out there now, people who teach for the love of the job and of the kids too. Good teachers open sleepy eyes and help fledgling adults emerge from the chrysalis of childhood. They prod, probe and challenge, and I remember their names. Yes, there were a few bad apples. May they slither away into the dark, stormy night of hackneyed prose. I hope that somewhere a light snaps on and a 9th grader learns to love words. History too. Maybe she’ll begin to write, and words will flood into her brain like a rising tide. Maybe she’ll stand and speak. Who knows?
I still remember Mr. Lincoln’s famous speech and his words of wisdom uttered during a time of great national crisis. Perhaps, I should read them again. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Thank you, Mr. President. You too, Mr. M.