Days Gone By - stories from the past

Do you remember having to learn words by heart in school?

Words By Heart

According to family lore, my first public speaking experience was in our little one-room church in Kentucky when I was three years old.  My dad lifted me up onto that little podium, and I had three words to say: “God is love.”  And I did say three words:  ”God rubs me.”

A couple of years later in that same spot, I was to recite a poem which involved bird sounds such as what an owl says and what a robin says.  I was rollicking along just fine until I got to the line about what the dove says. There was complete silence—I could not remember what the dove says!  Finally, from four pews back, my dear mother said “Coo, coo” –and my world was all right again as I concluded the poem.

It is a joy and a pleasure for me today that my teachers from earliest years through high school saw the importance of students learning the “words by heart” as we studied different levels of poetry.
Often and unexpectedly a few lines from a  poem “learned by heart” so long ago cross my mind.  A well-known one is Trees by Joyce Kilmer. Its simple closing lines point to our Creator:

Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven”, “Annabel Lee”, and “The Bells” were favorites.  There was a certain darkness sensed in these poems requiring a special tone of voice when they were recited in class.

More seriously we quoted Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” with these lines:

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal.
Dust thou art to dust returneth
Was not spoken of the soul.

The sad love story of Maud Muller by John Greenleaf Whittier really struck a chord in my romantic teen-age heart as I memorized those closing words:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these: It might have been.

At my present age, I find myself chuckling as I recite the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes in “The Last Leaf.”  When I learned these “words by heart” all those many years ago, the words of the poem were about OLD PEOPLE!  Now they are about ME!


I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o’er the ground
With his cane.

My grandmother has said –
Poor old lady, she is dead
Long ago –
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
In the snow;

But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
Like a staff,
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh.

I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, and all that,
Are so queer!

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.

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  1. Yes my teachers had us memorize poems.

  2. Yes, and I remember Miss Amie Anderson requiring us to write a poem. For me, it was extremely hard.

  3. I particularly remember memory work in 5th grade in Tallassee with Miss King.

  4. Of course, it’s called learning or retention or stretching your brain.

  5. I still remember some, it is a few minutes ago that I don’t remember.

  6. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Robert Frost That’s the one I remember the most.

  7. We used “flash cards” to learn words. Never “sounded” words. Until this day, I look at words to determine the correct spelling. I had terrible problems with that, there, and this. In 6th Grade we memorized Chapters from the BIBLE. GONE are the old days.

  8. So long ago, we learned “times table” by heart; will never forget Ms. Pearson (in our one room school house) saying “if someone wakes you at midnight and asks you “what’s 9 times 8? you tell them 72”. I eventually learned all the times table but the one that stands out most prominently is: 9×8=72! I also learned how to diagram sentences which has been a lifetime “godsend” in my speech and writings. I find the subject, predicate, object and modifiers & I’m good to go!

  9. We would learn “A piece”, a phrase or Bible verse.

  10. It is erroneous to equate “memorizing words “with “memorizing poetry.“

    Memorizing poetry is what all of us of a certain age were required to do and for obvious reasons.

    Memorizing “words” is another matter which is tied to the much discredited whole language century long effort to dumb down our populace. Let’s keep these terms straight!

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