When I was twelve years old and moved up to junior high school, one teacher made a big impression on me, probably more so than she ever realized during the three years she was my speech teacher. A blonde bombshell with tight dresses and big bazooms, she drove a fire engine red convertible and smoked Parliament cigarettes. In my memory it seems that everyone adored her, except perhaps the school Principal, who might have viewed her as being on the dangerous side of the street in dress and deportment. Her name was Juanita Brumfield and she reminded me of Jayne Mansfield.
It was definitely Miss Brumfield who opened my eyes to poetry and drama and taught me how to read both. Because her class was aimed at public speaking, we regularly had assignments that brought us to the front of the room, or onto the mini-stage in the back, and one of my assignments was to memorize and present to the class, Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-cat.” I did it, and probably ended up with a good grade, but the unfathomable part of it is, in all the years since I have never forgotten the words to that poem and can today recite it on a moment’s notice. How I wonder, are these word-experiences formed and ironed into longterm memory.
The presence of an Edward Lear book of verse on my bookshelves today has direct relation to that pretty bombshell teacher in the red convertible all those years ago.
THE OWL AND THE PUSSY-CAT
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sand to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long have we tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows,
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible-spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
It wasn’t only nonsense verse that Edward Lear (1812-1888) wrote. The following is one of his many letters.
LETTER TO EVELYN BARING
Dear Baring, —
Disgustical to say, I must beg you to thank His Excellency from me, & to relate that I cannot come. I was engaged to dine with the De Veres, but am too unwell with awful cold in the head & eyes to go out at all.
I have sent for 2 large tablecloths to blow my nose on, having already used up all my handkerchiefs. And altogether I am so unfit for company that I propose getting into a bag and being hung up to a bough of a tree till this tyranny is overpast. Please give the serming I send to his excellency.