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Learning by Heart with Miss Duffy

January 12, 2021


Miss Duffy was a giant.

Physically, she was diminutive; she dazzled with a shock of grey hair, meticulously placed bright red lipstick, and a limp from childhood polio. In the eyes of a fourth-grade boy, her presence was towering. Miss Duffy talked and laughed with a gravelly voice. She told incredible stories and crafted assignments of great creativity. Somehow this old woman still lived in a fourth-grade world. And I loved her.

That is, until one day when she assigned us to memorize Robert Frost’s immortal poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Now, understand, the poem is only four stanzas—sixteen brief lines—of easily apprehended English. But in the mind of a fourth-grader, it could just as well have been The Iliad. A few weeks hence, we were told, each of the twenty-three fourth graders at Jefferson Elementary School would stand by their L-shaped desk (one-by-one) and recite the poem without error.

Suddenly, Miss Duffy was not my favorite teacher.

In the subsequent weeks, I procrastinated until I could avoid it no longer. And then, night after painful night standing before my dad in his recliner, I stumbled through a poem about some guy riding on his carriage into the woods, stopping, and then riding on. Oh, yes, and it was snowing and there was a horse shaking his bells too.

Oh, good grief.

Why do you torment me, Miss Duffy? Why do cheat me of my childhood glee, Mr. Frost?

And so, the appointed day came. One by one, inexorably, my classmates bobbed up and down from their desks, flawlessly reciting Frost’s poem. As my time drew near, I could feel the nausea rising. Standing up, the sweat trickled down my neck and my clammy hands trembled. I must have fallen into a fugue state because all I remember were some words spilling from my mouth and then heavily sitting down. In its wake, there was no condemnation or corrective telling me I had failed, only some kid behind me standing up and droning on about “a little horse thinking it queer.”

At that moment, victorious as the weight of weeks was lifted off my shoulders, I swore to myself that I would never read Robert Frost’s poem again. After all, what was the point? How would this ever help me out in life?  Clearly, I simply was not a poetry guy.

Stepping forward into the future, however, I found myself bedraggled on a particularly heinous night of moonlighting during my third year of internal medicine residency. Having finished admitting two very sick patients, and with five more to go, I sat at the nurse’s station waiting for a urologist to call me back. The four pagers hooked to my scrub pants where chirping incessantly. I had missed dinner and my stomach was growling. I looked at the clock. It was only two in the morning.

And that’s when it happened.

Without warning and completely uninvited, Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening invaded my consciousness. Here I was amidst patients groaning, bells ringing, and staff scurrying this way and that, and for a few moments I was with the man on a late night ride, pausing and drinking in the lovely, dark, and deep woods. The lone traveler, I realized, wasn’t ruminating about the road behind, nor was he obsessing about the miles to go before he sleeps. The nameless, solitary figure simply calmed his impatient horse and decided to be still, to be present. And as he did, he felt the easy wind and could hear the downy flake. He understood peace.

It was a surreal experience, if only a momentary one, but it was a grace. Because at long last, I understood what the poem meant. I finally realized why Miss Duffy made me memorize it.

In 1940, scholar and essayist George Steiner, at the time eleven years old, escaped the Nazi encroachment of France. As the hateful menace drew ever nearer, he recalled that “one of the things my father taught me was: always have your bags packed.” This meant more than your physical possessions; it spoke acutely to the preservation of the stories and memories, the beliefs and morals that make up who you are. That is why we must memorize. Steiner would explain:

Most of present schooling is organized amnesia. It takes away the arts of remembrance. . . . It leaves people with very little inner ballast. Now, that’s fine when all is going well. When all is going well and you’re beautiful, young, and earning a lot, then you can sail very lightly before the wind. Be careful. When things start going wrong—health, loneliness, the most natural things—what you carry inside you, they can’t take away from you. . . . Put luggage inside—that’s the only way I can express it—[so that] when the wind starts blowing very hard, you have ballast. We are taking that away from our young and we are leaving them, very often, tremendously empty.

And when he considered the disappearance of the great writers in the Soviet nightmare, Steiner reminded that their work is remembered today because they were memorized in the darkness. “As long as ten people know a poem, it will live.” We must learn some things by heart, he insisted. “The most important tribute any human being can pay to a poem or a piece of prose he or she really loves is to learn it by heart. Not by brain, by heart. . . . What you know by heart, the bastards cannot touch; they cannot take it from you.”

The poem that visited me on that oppressive night in the hospital was uninvited, but it was welcome. It was an echo from my past that meant something more to me than when I originally recited it. It was, as Seamus Heaney described, the deep well he shouted into in his poem Personal Helicon. Certain wells, Heaney recalled, “had echoes, [and] gave back your own call / With a clean new music in it.”

I recently tried to find Miss Duffy. It turns out she taught students at Jefferson Elementary School for forty years. Her picture shows that same shock of grey hair and that bright red lipstick. She died in 2017. I still hear her gravelly voice and her soul-deep laughter. I understand how much she cared.

Thank you for teaching me to learn by heart, Miss Duffy, and thank you for the inner ballast. I didn’t know what you did for me then.

I do now.