I began teaching Literature and Writing at North Community High School in the fall of 1974. We had purchased a home in the neighborhood four years earlier with a mind to living where my students lived.
One of our early home rehab projects was to upgrade the washtub sink in the basement. The plumber who came to do the work was talkative, friendly. When I mentioned I was teaching English at North High, he, without ado or fanfare, recited of the opening lines of The Prologue to the Canterbutry Tales. In Old English!
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Pipe wrench in hand, his other hand resting on the washing machine, he offered the passage with great pride and bearing. As he finished, he added, “Learned it in 11th grade at North. Mrs. Jefferson. That was thirteen years ago. Never forgot it.”
And I have not forgotten that moment. I was a young teacher then, still learning what mattered in a classroom. Only a couple of years earlier I had studied Chaucer in a University of Minnesota summer school class, reading The Pardoner’s Tale aloud while dandling my son Andrew, then a year old, on my knee at the coin laundry.
What did it matter, our reading of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem? What did it matter both the plumber and I responded in a visceral way to what our nascent language sounded like in the 14th century? Something passed between us, the plumber and me, there in our humble basement. An acknowledgement, wholly unspoken, that our everyday speech came from this odd-sounding earlier version of English, and that being aware of that lineage honored something deeply important in each of us.
And further, I suspect, being introduced to those characters from six hundred years ago who behaved like any of us does today also mattered. Poetry gives us the best of what our language can be, shows us where to find the best (and worst) of what we can be.
To honor Geoffrey Chaucer, Mrs. Jefferson, and that graceful plumber whose name, sadly, I do not recall, I asked my students, each year, to memorize poetry, including those funny-sounding lines from The Canterbury Tales. Perhaps some of those students are out there in the world now, reciting, at odd moments, lines of poetry to their clients, their patrons, their friends or their children. Does it matter?