Learning to Read through Poetry

Prompt from Maureen Millea Smith. Take a poem or writing and tell us what it means to you.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.


When I was just learning to read, I would sneak out to our farmhouse utility room where my older siblings would have left their school books. When I was in first grade, my oldest sister was a senior in high school, and there would have been a Koyama junior, sophomore, freshman, 9th, 6th, 4th grader and me at 1st grade.

School was a fascinating experience for me—I didn’t know any kid on my first day. Sheri Imer’s mom and my mom knew each other, so they introduced us and we went out to play. Sheri was my first friend in first grade. We remained friends throughout school. She later became my sister-in-law. In first grade Margie Kerrick was so smart she could already tell time—the numbers on the clock were still a mystery to me. We said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. There was a picture of George Washington in the front of the class. Susan Kerrick (Margie’s cousin) was called on to count to 100. I envied her so much.

In the front of class there were boxes filled with reading cards. It was the SRA reading program, and there was a race to finish the SRA cards. I can’t remember exactly how the cards worked but after completing a booklet we would go up to Mrs. Fisher and she would check a box next to our names and we could get another booklet. Trying to be the first to finish a series of cards was a great motivator to me. I learned to read as I raced to win.*

We didn’t have a lot of books at home. My mom belonged to a mail order book club where she joined for a dollar and received ten books in the mail. Then she had to pay for a book once a month. She got “The Invisible Man”, “Giant”, and more that I can’t remember. For years she would get Readers Digest Condensed Books, also through the mail, that I would devour in 5th through 12th grades. Mom and Dad bought The World Book Encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman. The encyclopedias had these amazing acetate pages of the human body that layered muscle onto bones, skin over muscle or you could peel skin off the muscles, muscles off the bones, depending on if you paged forward or backwards.

So, sometimes in the morning, I would sit on top of the cool washer and dryer, forage through my brothers’ and sisters’ books, trying to uncover new reading material. They had these thick literature books—the red one was English Literature, the gray one was American Literature. The books were worn from years of being passed down from class to class. There was a legend about my dad’s signature in a book that showed up in one of my sibling’s class. I would page through these tomes looking for things I could read. Most of it was way above my level—anything with really long sentences I glossed over. But poetry I could get my head around. The sentences were short, rhythmic and flowing, unlike some of the complex prose in lengthy paragraphs.

Invictus was one of the first poems I ever read. The sentences were brief, most of the words (except for “unconquerable” and “bludgeoning”) were easy to sound out, and I thought I understood it, even though I didn’t. When it was my turn to recite a poem in class, I memorized Invictus and read it like a horse plowing through a field.  I was thrilled at the sound of the first lines and believed my soul to be unconquerable.

Now that I am old I realized that sometimes Shit Happens.  But in spite of that, to this day, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.



An interesting article about SRA reading program can be found here: http://hackeducation.com/2015/03/19/sra

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