76. Typhus: Louis Simpson

When poetry is taught in a unit, it is persevered. Those who refuse to admit its charms fight a war of attrition that, at best, finds a whimsy that stays with them until they reach the door.

At this age, poetry should matter like love and air. It does with music, as they will not take those buds from their ears, yet show them the words that go with the beat and they shut down. Dull. Boring. Confusing. Irrelevant! They have more important things to do!

So put it everywhere but in the unit. Take it out of English and place it above the urinal. Make it about life and girls and boys and whatever odd thing that peeps its head up in your school or community.

This is about the the plague. In addition to teaching Language Arts and Social Science, I am teaching Science. Our topic is cells and heredity, but the Humanities teacher in me forces my hand. This is part of the curriculum. Place it where it fits in your world.

Louis Simpson

“The whole earth was covered with snow,
and the Snow Queen’s sleigh came gliding.
I heard the bells behind me,
and ran, and ran, till I was out of breath.”

During the typhus epidemic
she almost died, and would have
but for the woman who lived next door
and cooked for her and watched by the bed.

When she came back to life
and saw herself in a mirror
they had cut off all her hair.
Also, they had burned her clothing,
and her doll, the only one she ever had,
made out of rags and a stick.

Afterwards, they sent her away
to Odessa, to stay with relatives.
The day she was leaving for home
she bought some plums, as a gift
to take back to the family.

They had never seen such plums!
they were in a window, in a basket.
To buy them she spent her last few kopecks.

The journey took three days by train.
It was hot, and the plums were beginning to spoil.
So she ate them…
until, finally, all were gone.
The people on the train were astonished.
A child who would eat a plum
and cry… then eat another!

Her sister, Lisa, died of Typhus.
The corpse was laid on the floor.

They carried it to the cemetery
in a box, and brought back the box.
“We were poor—a box was worth something.”


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