Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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3Rs: A Sentimental Journey

Lesson One: The Hickory Stick
In a sentimental mood, my mother would occasionally sing, “School Days, School Days, dear old Golden Rule days.” I’m not sure she understood how much irony “the 3Rs” carried or how much it may have parodied the phonetic spelling of the partially literate or how much a song sustains a wistful longing for the sentimental threat of a beating: “Reading & ‘riting & ‘rithmetic / Taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick.”

But she did understand how a book in my pocket could be a secret that would keep me out of trouble and thus defeat the prophecy of the awful 6th grade teacher who told the whole class she was sure I’d end up in prison. I still see that teacher’s face, withered & cracked by Nebraska’s unkind light, living on candy she stole from children.

When they stuck me in the lower reading level because this teacher couldn’t bear to have me in her class, I followed my mom’s advice, carrying a book in my back pocket, so I wouldn’t get in trouble, maybe a story about a chicken who laid a dinosaur egg, or a TV dog—or maybe Dracula or the Communist Manifesto, talking about the living dead, talking about the common good, just to piss people off.

Lesson Two: Sentimentality
I don’t really understand how vicious writers can be when they tear the soft meat of the underbelly, attacking one another’s sentimentality, sometimes rightly for all the cruelty done in sentimentality’s name. I understand that we earn respect by learning to endure great pain with subtlety and a modicum of complaint. But sometimes I think we don’t know how to deal with loss, so we invent a mysterious quotient to avoid excessive feeling. I remember a football coach who told me to fight through the pain unless you broke a leg. How is this different from our writerly requirement that sentiment must be “earned”?

Lesson Three: Remembering the Tree
Our school year still gives time to the kids and other seasonal workers to work the summer fields, just like my father, who by the end of the 8th grade had learned to cipher & recite well enough for a farmer, so he went out into the fields for the rest of his life, but what he learned stuck with him. One day, when my brother and I were about to cut down a blighted elm in his backyard, our father shouted his sentimental childhood recitation: “Woodman, spare that tree! / Touch not a single bough! / In youth it sheltered me, And I’ll protect it now!” He came from a time when we memorized poems because we didn’t know when they’d come in handy, so we laughed and cut the tree down anyway, misjudging its heft and almost dropping it on the house.

Lesson Four: Old Age and Bitterness
When I was young, my mother asked me: “If you’re so bitter now, what will you be like when you’re an old man?” I knew she was talking about her father, who lost jobs and farms and the love of his family, who sat by the refrigerator all day smoking his Camels, who died out of spite when they cut off his leg.

I didn’t know how to answer my mother, but I remembered a story my grandfather told all his grandchildren about how he made the cigar box banjo, and his own father, a preacher, broke it as a lesson to his congregation about the devil’s music. Later I wondered if we all have music that someone breaks, or maybe to be bitter is to be without song.

Lesson Five: Homecoming
My mother also liked to sing Les Brown & his Band of Renown’s “Sentimental Journey,” written at the end of WWII. Perhaps she bought and paid for whatever sentimentality she had with poverty and war or ringing the monotone bell of a one-room country school calling in the children from their furious play. When she died, after maybe fifty years of teaching country school and town school and bible school, I went back to that sometimes viciously sentimental and sometimes cruel little town, where we sang “Bless be the Ties that Bind,” where strangers came up to me on the street and almost made me cry when they told me:

“Your mother taught me how to read.”  

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