Posted by: Tom Triumph | May 2, 2012

173. Prayer To Persephone: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Move Up Day is coming at our school.

On this day students find out which teachers or teams they will have for next year. It is filled with trauma and anxiety and triumph. On Move Up Day students, for an hour, move up to their future classroom and begin to coalesce with their new classmates. As we are a K-8 school they have known each other, at least a little, for years, but it ultimately a day filled with a roller-coaster of emotions based on fear.

In my days at East Junior High our classes and homeroom were mailed to us some day in August. It was a computer print out, with no personalized greeting or “Who Am I” letter from the teacher. I don’t recall an appeals process, although I am sure some parents did this (my parents left schooling to the school, and figured any failing was my fault). If team building existed in the nascent middle school movement of the early 1980s it did not reach Andover, Massachusetts. The letter came; we went to class after Labor Day. Nobody died, as they used to say.

My favorite Move Up Day story is probably a horrible story to laugh at, but the student just graduated from Dartmouth so I guess it worked out well enough. Until recently, students at my school found out their placement when their current teacher handed them an envelope, the new team’s name inside. They were then booted from that classroom and told to climb the stairs to the middle school rooms they had never seen before. There was no time to mentally process, and so nervous kids would stream into our rooms, eyes darting about, they’d look for friends, and then cheer or cry. By the end of the hour, kids left in not a horrible mental state, some even happy about being on our team.

For this child, he hoped and prayed to get this one teacher–the fun male teacher everyone wanted. Who he didn’t want was an old school teacher who physically looked like Ms. Crabapple from “The Simpsons”, but dressed in black, and who I will refer to as “Ms. C”. Now, I loved this Ms. C, now retired, and boy could her students write (and her former students would begrudgingly admit that she was one of the fairest teachers in the school and really taught them something; kids in need of stability secretly loved her, but never publicly), but in the mind of a child she was a composite stock character of every evil, un-fun teacher you can think of.

When this now-Dartmouth grad opened his envelope, he got the fun teacher. He was psyched. In the classroom on Move Up Day, they played a game and then began another when an aide appeared in the door. The wrong envelope had been given. His placement: Ms. C. Shocked, he dragged his body to the other room and spent the next two years being a resentful pain. Of course, he learned to write well and be diligent in his work, and is graduating from Dartmouth this week.

Maybe there’s a lesson there.

If not, there’s a lesson in this Millay poem. Have students read or tell them the story of Persephone. What advice would they give? Have they felt like Persephone? How so? It’s a good journal prompt, especially as they will increasingly find themselves in situations–opportunities and consequences–at their own hands (choice is coming!).

Note, too, that this is told by Persephone’s mother. What advice does their parent(s) give them? Have they been counseled about friendships or placement? What advice would they give to a sibling or younger student (or younger them!). Suck it up? Squeaky wheel? Make lemonade?

Ah, reflection. Just in time for summer.

Prayer To Persephone
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Be to her, Persephone,
All the things I might not be:
Take her head upon your knee.
She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell,—Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee:
Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”

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