47. Warning: Jenny Joseph

My wife was hanging up laundry today and several of her clothes were purple. Our sons are going through a “favorite color” phase, and they are constantly reminding each other that purple is their mother’s. As she was hanging the wash, I said, “Well, you won’t be full of regret over not wearing purple when you’re an old woman.”

This led me to wonder if that was indeed a poem, as I thought, or just a poster, as I had always seen it. My wife is the poetry expert–I began this blog, in part, to dig and explore for my own classroom for what my wife takes for granted–and she assured me it was a poem before it was a poster. It was a very popular poster when I was in college in the mid-80s, while poetry in general was not. That, along with Robert Frost being used to sell insurance, show me that poetry still has a place, but our culture’s packaging has changed.

That said, “Warning” is a good piece to offer tweeners and teen agers about the choices they make. Known informally as “When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” it is a poem for a much younger audience. These are “the happiest years of their lives” and yet they live and dress for others. What styles exist, and does anyone have regrets? Why do boys dress differently than girls, and do they wish they could share the values of others? Yes, girls will want to be comfortable, but I always find boys who admit they could wear more color, or dress formally, or even have a wider range of shoes. Mostly, and certainly at first, they will all claim to dress as they like and believe that no one would judge them differently if they changed. This is a lie, and they know it. A challenge to wear something different might turn up some honesty. A discussion about what is not cool, clashing and individuality, are a natural.

This is only the beginning, because the poem is about regrets and not having any. It is about being responsible, and what is lost when that is all you are. Why are they in school? I ask them what would happen if they skipped school tomorrow, which can be touchy and dangerous, but it often comes around to the reasons they came today and why tomorrow can be even better. What do they want to achieve, and what do their parents want for them? Do those goals match?

In the end, plan a day of rebellion. It could be a simple clash day, where students wear clothes they would never wear without social permission, or your students might dig deeper (sit with someone different during lunch).

It is a favorite, and gets a response. Perfect for middle schoolers. Enjoy.

Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers
in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.


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