Early June my school held a poetry recital contest. I remembered hearing about it before from the former ETA at the school and so I wasn’t caught off guard when a teacher asked me to recite a poem for the event.
I knew last year that the native English teacher did “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. I fumbled with a few ideas – another Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost – before the deadline forced me to choose. I settled on…
a poem by an unknown author. A kind of cheesy poem. About friendship.
But I had my reasons! I first encountered this poem, titled “How Many Friends Have You,” on the CSAP, Colorado’s (former) standardized test for K-12. It was on the reading portion of the test, but I found myself really liking the poem. After finishing the exam early, I sneakily wrote down the poem on a scrap of paper I hid in my pocket. It went like this:
The old man turned to me and asked,
“How many friends have you?”
“Why, ten or twenty friends,” I said,
and named off just a few.
He rose quite slow with effort
and sadly shook his head,
“How lucky you must be,” he said
to have so many friends.”
“But think of what you’re saying.
There is so much that you don’t know.
A friend is just not someone
to whom you say “Hello”
A friend is a tender shoulder
on which to softly cry,
A well to pour your troubles down
and raise your spirits high.
A friend is a hand to pull you up
from darkness and despair,
When all your other so-called “friends”
have helped to put you there.
A true friend is an ally
who can’t be moved or bought,
A voice to keep your name alive
when others have forgot.
But most of all, a friend is a heart,
a strong and sturdy wall,
For from the hearts of friends
there comes the greatest love of all!
So think of what I’ve spoken,
for every word is true.
And answer once again, my child,
how many friends have you?”
Are you cringing from the cheesiness? Shaking your head? Well that’s how I partly felt. However, I decided to go with a poem that perhaps students could relate too. (There had to be some students who felt like I did, right?) Knowing that the nuances of language wouldn’t be fully communicated to my Korean students I wanted a poem with clear content; the words would be displayed in English and Korean on a screen behind me.
Poetry Slam Time!
The day of the recital arrived and I was slated to go first, right after the student hosts’ introductions. I arrived in the gymnasium almost late, but the event started late as well. After consulting with the teacher coordinating the event and waiting for kinks in the technology to be smoothed out, the event began. The student hosts were much more nervous than I was, easing some but not all of my tension. The visions in my head of powerful spoken word performances vanished, as I just hoped I’d be able to remember all the lines.
Finally, I was called up.
I walked to the center of the stage, the powerpoint of my poem set. Students cheered and the second graders surprised me by chanting “MO-NI-CA! MO-NI-CA!” The coordinating teacher had informed me he would choose background music to match the poem; suddenly a somber tune began to play. Students, ever sensitive to the mood, let out a huge “awwww!” and given that I’d be leaving the school in a couple months, I almost got teary.
But no. It was poem time.
As I began though, I realized there was a problem. The background music…was really…really…slow. At first I recited the poem at the speed I’d practiced, but that felt awkward. For the next stanza I switched to match the speed of the music – that was awkward too. I tried regular speed again, second guessed one of the lines, and had to glance up at the screen to double check, muttering a quick “sorry.” Students all laughed, not with malicious intent, but perhaps humor and relief at seeing a teacher make a mistake. I finished the rest of the poem at a speed that was somewhere in between my original tempo and the music’s, bowed, said thank you, and quickly retreated.
Other teachers on the sidelines congratulated me on a job well done, though mentally I was kicking myself for such an awkward performance. I sat and watched the students’ performances from the back of the room, relief at being done mingling with a slight embarrassment.
When the first student performance began, I was surprised to see the team walk out in ridiculous costumes. They began to perform a skit, at the very end of which were lines of a poem intermingled with over-the-top acting.
This was a poetry recital?
In the end I enjoyed this modernized version of the poetry recital, and students seemed to have a blast. There were humorous and sad poems alike, and many portrayals of ahjummas and halmonis – some of which might not have been funny to the competition’s judges, who were mostly ahjummas themselves.
Only one student recited her poem in a traditional manner – alone, with only a friend playing a piano accompaniment, relying only on the power of her voice. Her performance was highly anticipated and lauded by students and teachers alike. I soon saw why. This normally soft-spoken student’s voice resounded strong and powerful in the gymnasium, capturing and entertaining with the rises and falls she imbued with emotion. In the end she won first prize.
I’ll conclude with the list of poems performed for anyone who might be interested (Korean practice anyone?):
밴드와 막춤 by 하종우
새들도 세상을 뜨는 구나 by 황지우
그 날 by 정민경
엄마는 그래도 되는 줄 알았습니다 by 신순덕
꿈길에서 1 by 이해인
동그랑 길로 가다 by 박노해
콩, 너는 죽었다 by 김용택
열심히 산다는 것 by 안도현
어릴 때 내 꿈은 by 도종환