“I might have instamatic flu,” said the young girl as her mother checked her in at the doctor’s office.
“Let’s hope not,” her mother replied.
Instamatic flu. Instamatic…flu….
The words bounced around in my head.
“My mouth is wet, my throat is dry…” the girl said in half-hearted sing-songy voice as they took a chair in the waiting room.
Her mother dropped a kiss onto her daughter’s forehead in that way mothers do to check for fever.
“Are you going blind in your right eye?” she asked. The little girl giggled softly.
Ah! Yes! “Sick” from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. A poem about Little Peggy Ann McKay, who could not go to school (today) for all of the maladies she suffered—a gash, a rash and purple bumps…her hip hurt when she moved her chin and her belly button was caving in…her nose was cold, her toes were numb, she had a sliver in her thumb….
I checked myself in and took a seat directly across from the mother-daughter pair. I studied them surreptitiously over my magazine. The girl leaned on her Mom. Despite her sense of humor, she obviously didn’t feel well. It was her mother I was interested in, however. She was perhaps the right age. I searched her face, looking for a little girl I might have known once upon a time….
She smiled tightly at me in that way that said, “What are you looking at?” I went back to my magazine. Nothing about her looked familiar. It would’ve been reassuring had she been Terese or Bella or Jazmine…. It would be comforting to know she’d made it to adulthood, had a daughter when she was close to thirty and a doctor’s office she could take that daughter to when she was sick. It’d be nice to know they had little mother-daughter jokes about a silly poem. That would’ve made my day, actually.
Twenty years ago I worked in an afterschool program for kids who had little poetry in their lives—metaphorically or literally. Their lives in and out of school were filled with “issues,” drama they didn’t choose, and “challenges” that made seasoned teachers weep.
Story time was hard. Everything was hard. I read to them while they ate their snack. It was the only time they were quiet—they were always hungry. They had favorite books, but I can’t remember the titles any more. But I do remember the Shel Silverstein poems. They gloried in the rhythms and loved the length of his longer poems. They “performed” them—spoken word in a group—when we were out and about and you could tell that they felt like they’d accomplished something after they rattled off a long storied poem filled with big words and silly rhymes.
We’d learn a couplet or so a day, patiently memorizing our way through “the two-page poems,” as they called them. They adored “Sick,” with its marvelous joke at the end about it being Saturday. They enjoyed “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out,” even as they tried to outdo each other with tall tales (I hope, but probably not in some cases) of the heaps of trash in and around their homes.
We learned “The Crocodile’s Toothache” in record time—technically a one-page poem, but the illustration on the facing page made it worthy of exception. They enjoyed the shorter poems, too, but they didn’t want to learn them. Just read them occasionally.
We whispered poems while waiting outside the bathrooms, we jumped rope to them on the playground, we shouted them out in the park for a group of people who slept in the park. Building staff, police, bus drivers, old people, drunk people, and little babies listened to our recitations. Those kids weren’t applauded for much in their lives, but their ability to recite a poem en masse was an impressive feat and they were celebrated for it everywhere we went.
I didn’t know other poets for kids then. I’d be so much more prepared now—we’d do Langston Hughes, Jack Prelutsky, Joyce Sidman, Jon Scieszka, Marilyn Singer, Ken Nesbitt, Laura Purdie Salas, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alma Flor Ada…
I wonder how many poems they could’ve memorized? I wonder if they still remember any of the ones we did? Would they recognize the words instamatic flu if they overheard it at the doctor’s office? If so, I hope it makes them smile.