When I first learned of London’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, I felt miserable for days. That I had missed the whole experience of Britain during WWI’s first centenary year has been a small (and yes ridiculous) ache under my fourth rib, but to not see this, this, in person! I sulked. I wallowed. I took solace in tradition, knowing that my sixth grade would soon be learning Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, our time-honored contribution to the school’s Remembrance Day program.
A few weeks later, on the dawn-lit drive to an early morning at school — still slightly sulking, a little bit wallowing — I was thinking again about poppies. London’s 888,246. Our poetics. The few paper ones we’d need to make for the program, to wear on the stage. I was thinking about poppies, and wishing for England, when I had an idea.
I flew first to my team teacher — babbling, I’m sure, arms waving; I ran the idea past our director over lunch. The Wednesday of that week, nearly a month ago now, I took our last period hour to teach a history of the War, and an introduction to our poem. We pulled the map down the wall and marked each country by their secret alliances, breaking Europe into pieces. We tallied casualties and compared the numbers to state populations, adding half the West Coast together before making up the millions. We talked about the trenches, measured the space of them between our desks; tried to sleep in that space, to stand, to imagine living. By the time we arrived in Flanders fields the room was reverent. We are the dead.
Proposing the Poppy Project was resurrection. We stood again, taking up scissors and glue. I will teach you first, I told them. Paper: red like blood, black like death, let us together make a growing thing. We will make poppies until Armistice Day. As many as you’d like, whenever you have the chance. Next week, you become the teachers. The first poppies spilled across the door beam and a foot past the frame.
The following Wednesday our sixth grade formed Poppy Ambassador teams and set off for their assigned classrooms. In groups of two or three, they took templates, supplies, and further instruction to the rest of the school, teaching a mini lesson on WWI and a poppy how-to. They came back to me radiant, arms full. I do not think the poppies pinned to their shirts could grow any taller.
Today: as I write the boys have just tallied poppy number 1,968. Yesterday: our Flanders fields turned the West Wing corner and tumbled into the main hall. Every day through any hour we are fielding knocks at our door, emissaries bearing one poppy or fifty, sometimes baskets full. Between classes we count, after school they go to the wall, and through all this I catch passing breaths of conversation the whole school over — It’s for the war; 100 years; we’ve made 297; who is your Poppy Ambassador; they’re going to perform a poem; that is so many poppies; where will it end; I think that one’s mine, look. One afternoon I am on the ladder later than usual and from below I hear a solitary wanderer pass in something of a dream, talking to the walls. “I wish you could stay forever, poppies. I wish you could stay through the winter. You make me so happy.”
And so the poppies keep coming. We grow closer to D-Day; only two more weekdays before the Veteran’s Day program, and tomorrow morning we perform In Flanders Fields for the lower school’s Friday devotional. Yesterday we rehearsed on the stage, under the lights. Mr Moffat is directing the poem and so I stood to the back of the auditorium, listening for disparity in articulation, watching for hands in pockets, perfecting my teacher’s glare on the distracted. We say it again and again. I love the way he’s taught the poem — there is a moment, in the first stanza, where the words soar hovering just like the larks as written — but in hearing it for the ten hundredth time I find that, for a brief second, I cannot hear it again. We are the dead. My army-war-anything-with-a-gun-and-fire boys are standing shoulder to shoulder. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn. One of them catches my eye and twists his lips to a half-smile between breaths. Loved and were loved. On the opposite another can’t keep his arms still through the third stanza. One hand flutters at his side, marking the motions his mouth speaks. To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Fingers splay in a muted release. Be yours to hold it high. Clench again, fast in a fist, silent, at his side.
We march to class under fields of poppies.
PRESENTATION: I hadn’t used Prezi since my group project undergrad days — and generally found it unnecessary and never quite intuitive/creative/efficient enough to justify back then — but the software proved a good match for our WWI discussion. As a visual sort of human, I like having image reinforcement when possible, so while there are few notes* in this presentation each slide offers visual cue for discussion: new warfares (trenches, air), new weaponry (chemical, machine), new understanding (the devastating realities of film footage; war poets), etc. Feel free to use the slideshow for any purpose, personal or otherwise — you can click through to see it here.
POPPIES: Download our Remembrance Day Poppy template here.
*If terribly curious, I can send along full corresponding notes, too — just drop a note in my inbox.