Poetry and war in a sixth-grade classroom

Published 11:24 am Monday, November 21, 2011

By JASON MAYFIELD / Guest Columnist

I sometimes envision textbook committees saying the following:

“OK, so we have a poem here by a British poet Robert Service called ‘March of the Dead.’”

“Bob, I think sixth graders are scared enough of middle school. We don’t need to include a poem about death. The kids will have nightmares.”

“Sue, you have a point, but the poem isn’t really about death. It’s about the dead, those that died in the Boer War. It’ll fit great around Veterans Day, you know, ‘Remember those that fought for our freedoms’ and stuff. All in favor?”

“Bob, before we vote, I do have one more question. Don’t you think it might be tough on sixth-grade teachers having to explain what the Boer War was?”

“Nah, Sue, that’s why those sixth-grade teachers are paid the big bucks. Plus, I bet all Alabama sixth-graders enter with a proper understanding of the causes and consequences of the Boer War. So, all in favor?”


Of course, I’m not sure those were the exact words used prior to approval, but I do know I’ve had the following conversation with every sixth grade since I started teaching “March of the Dead” three years ago.

“Okay, this poem takes place after the Boer War.”

(Pause for giggles)

“Mr. Mayfield, there was actually a war called Bore?”

“Not Bore, Boer. I know it sounds the same, but it’s the African word for a farmer, and the war was in Africa, although it was against the British. Anyway, so the Boer War … Yes?”

“Mr. Mayfield, why was the war so boring?”

(No more giggles, now it’s hysterical laughter.)

“That’s right, you go ahead and make fun of the war, but it led to a great poem about remembering veterans that gave their lives for their country, and if you’re so unpatriotic that you find that funny, then just keep laughing away.”

(Laughter stops immediately. The teacher played the low card, the guilt trip, and it trumped. Now, on to the rest of the poem.)

It’s after Veterans Day now, but thank you again, vets — from my sixth grade and me — for your service.

Jason Mayfield is a gifted instructor at Columbiana Middle School.