Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 3, 2011

145. Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies: Edna St. Vincent Millay

We are doing a short unit on being in the middle–no longer a child, but not quite an adult.

Focusing on what made them who they are, we watched “The Great Santini”–PG from when PG was more PG-13 and words had different offensive values. It’s a great movie about children and their parents, how they influence us, and coming of age. I still remember the preview in the theaters, with Robert Duval bouncing a basketball off of his son’s head.

Today, we looked at that transition. We are heading towards the future–always the future–but for now we are going to shore up the present. Take an inventory. List what skills and talents lay dormant or underdeveloped. So, someone is going to teach everyone how to throw a football. We’ll all learn how to sew on a button. At some point, kids never dug a hole. Our introduction was this poem.

It is not about digging a hole, but about recognizing the change. At this age–in the middle–kids have memory. They, as they think about high school, even have nostalgia. Remember kindergarten? Ms. XXX really had my number.

In this poem, note that the transition from the cat-in-the-box to the thimble on the window pane is an odd one. First of all, what’s a thimble? Second, the death of a pet is a good, meaty and emotional writing prompt (be ready to comfort, and mine students for happy anecdotes and turn the conversation “happy” in an instant). But, that idea of memory and replaying old conversations and memories is a mature one. Kids get it. Still, be ready to really discuss it or they’ll gloss over it and be left with the image of a stiff cat.

Childhood Is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green striped bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God!
Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,—mothers and fathers don’t die.

And if you have said, “For heaven’s sake, must you always be kissing a person?”
Or, “I do wish to gracious you’d stop tapping on the window with your thimble!”
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you’re busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, “I’m sorry, mother.”

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died, who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries; they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake them and yell at them;
They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.

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