Voice of Audubon
Mary Curley had the form and grace of a scrub woman. Her family was what old American gentry used to call “lace-curtain Irish.”
Mary Curley rose above impoverished beginnings. She put herself through two years of required “normal school” to earn a teaching certificate, eventually finding a position as an English teacher in a small town south of Boston.
She was my first really good teacher.
Now that the years have passed, I can see that she was not only first in excellence then, but stands among the few best in my formal school years.
There were savages in Miss Curley’s classes. Each came into her room carrying a bare slate. She knew that the materials on those bare slates were already there, that potential for poetic creativity was inborn and a natural thing.
Teacher Curley had several props for us to lean on as she cultivated our interest. She was first to teach us the meaning of The Lord’s Prayer.
Catholic, she may have had an ulterior motive, but she knew we all had the words by heart, so she used the prayer to demonstrate how prose may also be poetry. With her we learned Psalm 23 as a thing of beauty. Separation of church and state has come to take away use of these valuables that are part and parcel of a real education.
In the course of the year, we were given a choice of several fairly long poems to commit to memory. A couple of my schoolboy pals elected, as I, too, did, to learn “To A Water Fowl,” by William Cullen Bryant. This poem created an awakening in the most savage of us.
It made an immediate effect upon our appreciation of outdoor life. Even though still callow youngsters, we were wholly caught up by reverence for wild creatures that was impressed in Bryant’s sensitive lines.
One of the girls chose to memorize Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” I remember her blushing at the stanza “A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.”
At that time, we were just cracking into teen-age. We were as intrigued and puzzled by the development of our bodies as youngsters are today. Miss Curley, long before sex education got its own room and its instructor, tactfully and easily gave us an oblique look at ourselves, teaching us more about our physical selves than ever Kilmer planned when he penned his “Trees.”
Like Nature’s Child celebrated in Bryant’s “Waterfowl,” Miss Curley has been long since taken up by the heavens, but not forgotten. Her two years in Normal School never gave her the education she had. She was self-made.
Not having singled out one poet to absorb the whole thrust of her scholarly inquiries, she discovered many of them. She was not a Shakespearean — yet she introduced us well to the Bard. We all learned the dagger scene from “Macbeth.” At her best, Miss Curley was a living anthology of American and English verse, able to translate lyrical obscurities when necessary, always able to transmit through her own love of learning, enthusiasm for learning on a broad scale.
Youngsters today carry in mind the lyrics of contemporary music. Themes are different, but memorization is not passe.
“Lives of great men all remind us
we can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
Poet: you have lighted our way — we will follow you.
Paul Seamans lives in Gill. His home on the west bank of the Connecticut River is a window on the natural world — his inspiration for Recorder columns since 1953. Some of his columns will have been previously published.