|The Father of English literature,|
Geoffrey Chaucer. Does anyone care?
Mrs. Gehring does.
I realize that few people can relate, but as high school seniors in North Dakota in 1963, my classmates and I were forced by a cruel and perverse English teacher, Mrs. Gehring, to MEMORIZE the prologue. And then we had to recite it, in Middle English, before our class. We didn't know any better. We just did it.
(Well, not all of us. One classmate admitted that she took an F rather than subject herself to the Chaucer experience.)
It is one of the few memorized pieces from my more-or-less clueless youth I can remember, but don't make me go past the first four lines. And yes, we had to use Middle English pronunciation. And we had to do so perfectly, as with every assignment in Mrs. Gehring's class.
Here's an audio example and below, the text as we memorized it. Go ahead, try it! FYI - "shoures soote" is pronounced like "sure-es soo-tuh". Today we'd say "sweet showers." My, how language changes over time.
Like all teenagers we asked.....
What's the point? Even then, when it wasn't at all proper to question authority, we wondered, why? How will we benefit from memorizing Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English? Or in any English?
Kate Turabian, had a lasting impression. A few excerpts:
My "Turabian" went with me to college and I probably still have it somewhere. Inside the cover I wrote, "This belongs to Merlin McDaniel; if found, please hide it in a better place than I did,
Dan W. Anderson I heard Garrison Keillor recite a few phrases (from Chaucer) on Prairie Home Companion a few years ago. I actually enjoyed learning the Canterbury Tales, kind of like learning a foreign language. Learning it made me appreciate how language changes over time. What I remember with considerable less fondness is that research paper I finished the day it was due at about 6:00 in the morning. The spacing had to be so exact. And I'm sure it was at least 70,000 words long. At least that is how long it seemed.
Mary Shirley Issendorf I remember staying overnight with Susan Howard the night before that research paper was due..... We were up alllllll night long typing our papers!!! I thought we'd run out of White Erase (or whatever it was called) to correct all the typing mistakes!
Mary Janz Mrs, Gehring had us read the Iliad, Odyssey and other classics, write haikus and poems in Iambic Pentameter, create illuminated manuscripts of the intro to the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. I still remember staying up late doing that in India ink. I can still remember the first line we memorized!! And then there were the vocabulary words we created out of Latin roots! She was ruthless!Maybe Mrs. Gehring had a thing for Medieval times and literature. She certainly had a thing for teaching. She was the best teacher I ever had, high school or college. It was because she required her students to go far beyond what we thought we could or should do. It's as if she didn't consider that we couldn't do it.
Even back then, senior English students were grouped in "advanced" (superior) or "regular"(not quite up to snuff) classes. I was "regular "and it annoyed and insulted me.
But then, guess what Mrs. Gehring did? She made her inferior regular students do the same work as her advanced superior students! I loved her for that. Still do. Her expectations for us were high, and expectations have a lot to do with how students perform.
(In my classmates' comments above, I see that the smart ones had to also copy out the Prologue in the illuminated style. I am grateful I didn't have to do that. )
In addition to painfully reciting Chaucer, we had to memorize and use Greek and Latin prefixes and roots, a dozen or so a week, which I appreciate to this day. We also had to write a serious research paper. No big deal, right?
But we had to do it perfectly using footnotes and all according to the stringent rules of a demon-bitch named Kate Turabian, who probably had something to do with training Mrs. Gehring in the finer points of instilling dread and terror.
Do high schoolers still write research papers according to Turabian's exacting standards? I don't know. But I do know that in the early 1960s, way before computers, typing a lengthy research paper with footnotes was a Herculean (probably a vocabulary word in Mrs. Gehring's never-ending quest to elevate us) effort.
Mrs. Gehring was tough, but with a sense of humor and reserved caring. She brooked no nonsense, but encouraged students to laugh and explore, within bounds. She was sharp, perceptive, scary. She had a commanding presence, which is essential, I think, to effective teaching and leading.You never wanted those high heels clicking in your direction or that fiery gaze burning a hole in your forehead. You didn't want to be friends with her. But you wanted her to respect your efforts.
She taught us how to construct a paragraph and develop a five-graph essay, but also how to do harder things that had no apparent point. Such as memorizing Chaucer.
But isn't that what life turns out to be? Doing hard things day after day, year after year? Especially going to work at jobs we don't like, raising difficult children, having challenging relationships, trying to reverse the relentless tide of physical decline, regretting? Holding grudges? On it goes.
We get so caught up in the rush of time, which I'm sorry to report from the seventh decade, accelerates with every passing day, that we forget to question the value of what it is we're doing and what we could do instead.
It never occurred to me, at age 18, that I would someday be 70 years old. The horror!
I also could not have envisioned that some 50 years later, I would be chopping onions and flame-roasting poblano peppers, and, at the same time, in a dreamy sort of way, questioning why I was doing what I was doing with my one and only life, and thinking about what I was going to do next, and in mid-meander, the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English is on the radio!
It stopped me dead before I let out a whoop.
I turned up the volume full blast because 1)I couldn't believe what I was hearing and 2) I loved, that for whatever reason, the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Middle English was planting Mrs. Gehring in my frontal cortex.
Wherever you are, Mrs. Gehring, thank you. I hope you're still alive. I hope you still adore the Father of English Literature, and that you heard the NPR program. I hope this post will reach you, and you'll know that your demanding classes and inspired teaching did not go unappreciated by a bunch of North Dakota rubes and farm kids.
Maybe that was why you imprinted Chaucer on our impressionable brains. So that 50 years later, we could accidentally hear it recited perfectly, just like you taught us, and we could say, I know that! I did that. I could do it again. I can do anything.
Even if I am now officially an old woman.