By: James Bates
Growing up it never failed, and this year was no exception, the first day of school was always embarrassing. By that I’m referring to class introductions, where the teacher went around and had us introduce ourselves and tell something interesting about said self. Being painfully shy, it was not my finest moment.
“And so now we have this young man,” Mr. Strout said, smiling at me and rubbing his hands together in anticipation of I’m not sure what. Well, actually, I was. “Tell us your name.”
Titters wove through the classroom like snakes through wet grass. God, I hated this, but Dad was kind of famous and I’d been taught to be polite.
“Edward Langston,” I stated, trying to speak up and not mumble like I normally did. “Ed,” I added, hoping this year in sixth grade I’d make the much anticipated move up from Eddie.
“Ed Langston”, the teacher said. (Thank you, Mr. Strout!) Then he turned to the rest of the class. “Do any of you know who Ed’s father is?” My ears turned red, my face felt like it was on fire.
Of course, my best friend Mickey, class clown and goof-ball extraordinaire, had to raise his hand. “His dad is Arthur Devon Langston, the famous poet.”
Mr. Strout smiled broadly. “That’s right Mitchell.” (Mickey was the nickname he’d chosen for obvious reasons.) “Arthur Devon Langston, the famous poet and lyricist. He’s also well-known for his limericks if I’m not mistaken, isn’t that right?” Now he turned toward me. “Isn’t that right, Ed?”
I sighed inwardly. I wanted to crawl into my shirt and die. But, of course, I couldn’t. Plus, Dad always told me to, as he put it, “Do our name proud.”
“That’s right, Mr. Strout.”
Mickey chimed in. “He’s really famous. He wrote that one about the guy’s feet.” Then he stood up next to his desk and recited dramatically, “There once was an old man from St. Pete. Who walked on his hands not his feet. He lasted one day. And then had to say. ‘It’s not a feat that I’d like to repeat.'”
And the class erupted in laughter. Just shoot me, I thought to myself. Please, someone, just kill me.
In spite of that rather inauspicious beginning, sixth grade turned out to be a good year for me. I met Angie. Mick and me became even better best friends. I was able to keep a low profile and not have too much attention drawn to myself, which was always a good thing in my book. So all in all the year went well.
But then in May Mr. Strout sprung the final assignment of the year on us.
“Class,” he intoned, standing tall and proud in front of us squirrelly and anxious to be done with school eleven and twelve-year olds. “Class, your last assignment for the year is a writing exercise. I want you to write a limerick.”
Groans from everyone. “Now, now, let’s calm down.” Mr. Strout held up his hands and waited for silence. He was muscular and bald, nearly six and a half feet tall with a full beard. Rumor had it he once played linebacker for Purdue or something. He really did command a presence. “And the best news is this,” he added. We all waited in anticipation, thinking that the best news was that he was just joking and we wouldn’t have to do the assignment. Of course, we were wrong. “Ed’s father, Arthur Devon Langston, has agreed to judge them and read some of his favorites for us. Won’t that be nice?”
Right then and there what had been a rather perfunctory year in sixth grade exploded into one I’d never forget. Dad was going to come to school and read our limericks? News to me. He taught English at the University so he was good in front of a class. Great, actually. He was an amateur thespian and enjoyed acting in local plays. He’d be in his element in our classroom. But, really, my father coming to school to be an ad-hoc teacher? It couldn’t get much worse. Adults like to say that it’s all about character building. “It’ll be a good learning experience,” they’ll tell you. Maybe, but when you’re eleven years old, it’s just plain embarrassing.
In the end, though, it wasn’t so bad. Dad was good with the class. Friendly. My classmates liked him. He told us that the name limerick most likely referred to the city or county by the same name in Ireland. He told us that the form first appeared in England in the early years of the eighteenth century and was popularized by Edward Lear in the nineteenth century. He understood that our attention span, not the best on a good day, was even shorter with the end of school drawing near. In short, he kept it short.
Then he went ahead and read a few of our limericks. He had a booming voice, and, like I said, he was good in front of people. The class loved him.
“This first limerick is by Angie Smith,” he said. I glanced over at Angie and she shyly smiled at me. My heart went racing.
Dad recited, “She was a dancer at club Bet Your Bippy. She was talented, hardworking and thrifty. Men hooted and hollered. She saved all their dollars. Now she lives in a big house in the country.”
He smiled at Angie, “Well done, young lady.” Angie’s ears turned red. Mine, too.
Dad continued, “Next is a charming one about a kitten. It’s by Kathy Anderson.”
He cleared his throat, then read, “Jane loved her new little kitten. It’s fur was as soft as a mitten. But when kitty peed on the floor. Jane ran for the door. With her kitten then Jane wasn’t so smitten.”
The class laughed a little. Dad smiled and said, “Very good rhyming, Kathy.” She beamed.
“Next is by Susan Warner,” he said. “I liked the imagery in this one.”
He recited, dramatically, “A fierce storm blew in late at night. The lightning made everything bright. Thunder rumbled like a train. And the sound of the rain. Gave everyone who awoke such a fright.”
He smiled at her. “Good job, Susan.” She giggled.
Dad glanced at me before saying, “This next one is by Ed Langston.”
Oh, man…I thought to myself, this can’t be good. But it turned out okay.
Dad recited, “The daredevil was named Flying Red. He walked a tightrope that others would dread. When he performed the crowds cheered. They never knew that he feared. Falling and waking up in a hospital bed.”
Dad gave me a quick smile and a nod of his head. Whew, it was over. I appreciated he didn’t say anything.
“And now I’m going to read the last limerick,” he said. “I saved it for last because, as much as I enjoyed them all, this one I really liked. It’s by Mitchell, excuse me, Mickey Johnson.”
I looked at my friend. He was grinning from ear to ear. He’d told me earlier that he’d worked, as he put it, “Really, ready hard,” on it. I hoped for the best for him.
Dad composed himself for a moment before lifting his voice dramatically, really getting into it, reciting, “My grandfather liked to drink beer. Grandma said we had nothing to fear. Cause after he was drunk. He smelled like a skunk. And the bad guys would never come near.”
The class erupted with laughter. Dad smiled at Mr. Stout who grinned back and there was no doubt about it, the limerick writing assignment had been a hit. I’ll never forget that day. All in all it wasn’t a bad way to end sixth grade.
After his success with the class, for a number of years Dad came back to school for, as he and Mr. Strout called it, Limerick Day. He helped out with the assignment and read limericks the students wrote. Everyone loved having him there. I went on to a career in computer science and never wrote another limerick in my life. Mickey ended up teaching middle school English. He’s even had some of his poetry published.
Angie? Well Angie and I married. She became a high school guidance counselor and together we are raising two daughters and one son. We leave it to their grandfather to teach them about limericks, something he loves to do and something my kids love to write and perform.
Here’s one my ten-year-old daughter recently recited:
“My best friend Sue has a yellow canary. She’s a pretty bird whose name is Sherry. When she sings songs so sweet. Sue gives her a nice treat. Then Sherry’s songs become even more merry.”
You know what, after all these years, they’re fun to hear.