Our classroom windows face the east, and daybreak floods the place with light. In September the effect blinds us, bouncing off white desks and spelling pages, making ruler reflections into glossy galaxies on the ceiling. We lower the blinds before first period, raise them again after third, and I refuse to flip the fluorescents on no matter what time of day, barring snowstorms and thunderclouds. But by mid-October the earth’s orbit shifts in our favor and the sun falls sidelong through the room. The blinds stay cinched to the upper sash. The light is soft, and gold. It catches my students about their heads like halos.
It is a particularly sacred time of the year in our classroom. We begin to memorize In Flander’s Fields. We build trenches, we make poppies. I teach a small history of The Great War; we watch footage from the Somme. This year everyone has wanted to know if we’ll do it again, the great Poppy Project of 2014. Poppies on our hearts and on our minds, I explain, but not on the walls. That was something else. We could not possibly replicate it. We make poppies for ourselves and the other classes have followed suit; the playground is a small riot of red. My sixth graders come to me between classes to pass off their poetry stanzas and it is holy to hear them, words written one hundred years ago among the dead, alive again.
There is a saying in German: nah am Wasser gebaut sein, to be built close to the water. It’s an idiom, a turn of phrase for those particularly prone to weeping, and it has been on my mind these last few weeks as we remember the war poets, my voice trembling. We memorize and perform Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s Flanders, but we read a dozen others. In the trenches, at lunch. Last Wednesday I commandeered our morning Bible Study for the cause. It was November 4th, and we read Wilfred Owen’s A Terre. I did not expect them to understand it, not all of it, but I believe in poetry’s alchemy, somewhere between ordinary words and music, and I believe in the abundance that returns to you when participant in beauty, even if only from the sidelines. So we read A Terre, and they caught hold of a few images (military medals as coins on a dead man’s eyes; the wild, ironic hope of growing puffy, bald), and we talked about them, and reverence bloomed between us. It was November 4th and ninety-seven years ago that day Wilfred Owen had been killed in action as he crossed the Sambre-Oise, killed in action one week from — almost to the hour of — Armistice. He was twenty-five. He is considered the greatest of the war poets. He wrote these words; listen, again:
Your fifty years ahead seem none too many?
Tell me how long I’ve got? God! For one year
To help myself to nothing more than air!
One Spring! Is one too good to spare, too long?
Spring wind would work its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.
O Life, Life, let me breathe!
It is a sacred time of the year in our classroom, and I feel daily, gobsmacked, grateful for it.