Little Peggy Ann McKay

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.

Shel Silverstein | Where the Sidewalk EndsAh! 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.

bkart_crocodiles-toothache_250We 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.

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