Monday Feb. 29, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders

At recess a boy ran to me
with a pink rubber ball and asked
if I would kick it to him. He handed me the ball,
then turned and ran
and ran and ran, not turning back
until he was far out in the field.
I wasn’t sure I could kick the ball
that far. But I tried,
launching a perfect and lucky kick.
The ball sailed in a beautiful arc
about eight stories high,
landed within a few feet of the 3rd grader
and took a big bounce off the hard playground dirt.
Pleased, I turned to enter the school building.
And then (I don’t know where they came from
so quickly) I heard a rumbling behind me
full tilt. They were carrying pink balls and yellow balls
of different sizes, black and white checkered
soccer balls. They wanted me to kick for them.
And now this is a ritual—this is how we spend recess.
They stand in line, hand me the ball and run.
The balls rise like planets
and the 3rd graders
circle dizzily beneath the falling sky,
their arms outstretched.

“Teaching Poetry to 3rd Graders” by Gary Short from 10 Moons and 13 Horses. © University of Nevada Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Leap Year Day, when the month of February has 29 days instead of 28. This happens every four years and only in years that are divisible by four, such as 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.

The length of time it takes the Earth to completely orbit the sun is 365 days and six hours. Most calendars only list 365 days. An extra 24 hours accumulates every four years, requiring an extra calendar day. If we didn’t account for this extra day, eventually, we’d have Christmas in July.

The Egyptians were the first to calculate the need for this type of regulation, but it wasn’t put into practice until Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator, consulted with the top astronomers of the day and in 46 B.C. began adding one day (known as an intercalary day, or “leap” day) every four years to make up for the discrepancy. At the time, the ancient Roman calendar system was based on a total of 355 days, a full 10 ¼ days shorter than a solar year. Not one to waste an opportunity, he also decided to rename “Quintilis,” the fifth month of the year (counting from March), which is how we got the month named “July.”

Unfortunately, Caesar’s new calendar system wasn’t strictly enforced, and by the 16th century, it was almost 10 days off track, so in 1582, Pope Gregory reformed the Julian calendar. The calendar system we now use is called the Gregorian calendar.

According to British historical tradition, a leap day is the only day of the year a woman can propose marriage to a man.

A person born on February 29 may be called a “leapling.” If you are born on February 29, you’re eligible to join the Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies.

It’s the birthday of American poet Howard Nemerov (books by this author), born on Leap Day in 1920 in New York City. His family owned Russeks, the famous and elegant Fifth Avenue department store where ladies shopped for the finest furs. His father loved photography, painting, and philanthropy and encouraged the same in his children. Howard turned to poetry and his sister Diane took up photography. Under her married name, Diane Arbus, she became quite famous in the 1960s for her unsettling portraits of morgues and circus workers. In later years, Nemerov had a falling out with his sister: he found the content of her photographs distasteful, and she felt he was too conservative artistically.

Nemerov was raised in a sophisticated city environment that included schooling at the very liberal Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School, which strove to introduce its students to social justice, racial equality, and intellectual freedom.

After graduating from Harvard, Nemerov served as a pilot during World War II, first in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later the U.S. Army Air Force. When the war ended, he turned to teaching and published his first collection of poetry, The Image of the Law (1947). Nemerov was a formalist who wrote almost exclusively in fixed forms and meter. He was disdainful of poems that incorporated politics. He said: “I’ve never read a political poem that’s accomplished anything. Poetry makes things happen, but rarely what the poet wants.”

On this date in 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. White Hollywood had not been a welcoming place for black actors; in the early 1900s, when silent film was still in its infancy, most African-American parts had been played by white actors in blackface. And even when black actors were cast, the roles were full of negative racial stereotypes. The trade unions were closed to African-American directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors. There were black filmmakers working in the movies, but they worked in separate production companies, producing what were called “race pictures”: movies with an all-black cast and crew.

Occasionally, an established and respected African-American actor could find a role in a studio picture, but only as a maid, cook, nanny, or butler. They were expected to speak in “Negro dialect,” and if they didn’t know how, a white dialogue coach was brought in to teach them. In the 1920s, the first black actor to establish himself in white cinema was the former vaudevillian and tap dancer “Stepin Fetchit,” whose real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry. Stepin Fetchit played into the most deeply entrenched stereotypes of the black American as simple-minded, lazy, and ingratiating. He was the first black actor to receive screen credit, and the first black actor to become a millionaire, but the African-American community had mixed feelings about his success.

And so Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to sing on American radio, a talented comedian and actor capable of playing a wide range of roles, was cast in the role of Scarlett O’Hara’s kerchief-wearing “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind (1939). She had already been typecast as a sassy black servant, and many members of the black community in the 1930s criticized her for continuing to take the roles, but she responded by saying she’d rather play a maid than be one. She first worked with Clark Gable in 1935’s China Seas and they became friends. He recommended her for the role of Mammy, and when she was prohibited from attending the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind because of Georgia’s segregation laws, Gable angrily threatened to boycott the premiere as well. And at the Academy Awards ceremony, McDaniel and her escort were seated far from her castmates at a segregated table.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®