Mary memorized Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem The Swing effortlessly, through the natural absorption of story and song that is one of the gifts of childhood. Stevenson’s timeless collection of poetry for children, A Child’s Garden of Verses, has always been on the bookshelf beside Mary’s bed. It is also present in her classroom library. Mary’s mother and her teacher read poetry to her often, sometimes singing as they read.
When Mary was five, she was able to read some poetry independently. By the time she was six, she enjoyed writing favorite poems like The Swing in her own cursive handwriting. She often added illustration to her poetry, using the watercolor or pastels she found on the shelves of her Montessori classroom.
The day Mary recited The Swing for the first time at school, her voice rose and fell following the poem’s cadence. She smiled as she spoke, held her body still with poise, ease, grace, and confidence.
“How do you like to go up in a swing?” the poem asks. As if the words of the poem lifted her upward, Lucy swayed gently forward and back. She stood before an audience of her friends and teachers, but she was in Stevenson’s swing, radiant, joyful, fully alive and engaged in the world of poetry.
For the adults watching it was an event, a real performance, and a celebration of all that is possible when parents and teachers read to children.
Mary’s four-year-old classmate Jon was amazed. It had not occurred to him that a poem could exist apart from a book, or that song and poetry could be shared so wonderfully with friends. Sitting in the front row of Mary’s audience, Jon was mesmerized.
The same day Mary recited The Swing, Jon whispered in his teacher’s ear, “I want to recite my poem for you. Just you.”
His teacher tilted her head closer to Jon’s mouth, smiling as she listened. “I’ve never heard that poem before,” she said.
“I wrote it in my head,” Jon said, “for a long time.” He was sincere, earnest, as honest as a four year old can be with his teacher.
Jon was an unlikely poet. He was not yet writing independently. His weak fine motor skills and short attention span were, in fact, an area of some concern. “May I write the words of your poem on paper?” his teacher asked, “so you can share your poem with your family and other people who are not with us.”
Jon was elated. His eyes sparkled. His smile was immediate, and radiant. He sat in his wooden chair with his pudgy hands clasped studiously on the table in front of him. His teacher sat beside him, listened again, and wrote. Even when she asked him to repeat, the words of Jon’s poem never varied. A poem clearly existed, complete, in Jon’s mind.
I love the sun.
How it shines on me
And it’s so bright
So children can play
Jon’s delight was, for his parents and teacher, as refreshing as a spring breeze at the end of a long, cold winter. At four, Jon was impish, disorganized, easily distracted, and sometimes disruptive. His favorite things about his Montessori classroom were his buddies, lunch, and the playground.
“I’m always thinking,” he once said of himself, smiling but serious. “I forget a lot of stuff, though. The stuff I forget always comes back to get me in trouble.”
The day Mary recited her poem so beautifully, Jon could imagine what a poem looks like when it lives within a person. For a moment, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem became real, incarnate in one of Jon’s best friends.
Mary’s performance and Jon’s composition offered windows into the inner worlds of two children. That day and those that followed also reminded their teacher that poetry can help organize a cluttered mind. Montessori children continually absorb the order and beauty present in their classroom environments. One special day of poetry made it abundantly clear that children will also absorb the abstract order and beauty present in fine language. Both children had been read to; both children felt encouraged, confident, and inspired; both children could re-create concepts of tone, meter, intonation, and structure ordinarily observed in mature artists.
The beauty Jon and Mary absorbed in their classroom exists within them. The simple forms of poetry held meaning for them that reflected and transcended both their classroom environment and the pages of the books they had enjoyed. Jon, Mary, and their many friends at school derive strength and joy from the language they have absorbed.