Monday, September 12, 2011

The Me Series: The Road Not Taken

I mostly talk about the bad aspects of my primary school, but it wasn't all its fault. It was just a rich primary school in the eighties; it couldn't help that there were only four Samoan kids in the school, a number that halved when I started J2 and my sister and our compatriot in her year started intermediate. In fact, they did try to include other cultures; we were encouraged to respond to our names with a (mispronounced/barely comprehensible) greeting from another country. I mispronounced with the best of them, convinced that in spite of being about a hundred shades darker than everyone else that I could blend in, even though I got a sick feeling as I chanted Ta-low-fa Mrs Hunt.

There was something wonderful about my primary school, and it was called Mr Francks' Language Group. Mr Francks was the school principal, a man with a lot of fine grey hair and a slight English accent, and his language group was comprised of about twenty children (forty, split into juniors and seniors), recommended by our teachers for showing interest and promise in reading and writing. Every week we met for an hour or so in a little room where we would sit in front of Mr Francks and receive the week's publication; a poem or excerpt followed by some questions, and then, best of all, the pieces he had chosen from our submissions of the previous week that had been marked "publish". First, Mr Francks would read us the poem, and we would talk about it. For years after I left primary school I would come across these poems again; I remember Sylvia Plath, and William Carlos Williams, and Peter Mayle (Mr Francks chose the excerpt from A Year In Provence in which Mayle describes a gargantuan meal; I adored it), and when these poems popped up I would all of a sudden see the totara trees outside the window, and remember what Felix's Roman sandals looked like. Finally the published among us would read our piece aloud, and then we would peel off to a corner to write.

I became part of the group when I was about six. My writing wasn't great, but as the years went by and my tastes became more affected while my inspirations (Anne Of Green Gables, Little Women) remained as sentimental, it steadily worsened. My final mistresspiece, which opened the annual anthology of my standard four year, was really something; a piece of prose about a grandmother and a swing, inspired by Highwic and Fried Green Tomatoes. However, in spite of giving me a misplaced belief in my writing, the group was wonderful for me. I already loved reading, but the group cultivated my love of language. I got to talk, confidently, about poems I otherwise mightn't have found until I was much older (if at all), and read some embarrassingly good poetry by children, aged ten and under, (as well as some as embarrassingly bad as my own). And I felt special; like the thing I loved loved me back.

Anyway, this was actually meant to be the first in a (non-consecutive) series of posts about things that made an impression on me and kind of made me me, and the thing I was thinking of wasn't Mr Francks' Language Group. It was this poem, which I first read at the group, when I was about eight. It surprises me now that I cared about it so much; compared with a lot of what we read, it's quite straightforward, and accessible when my tastes were strictly elitist. At the time I wanted to be an actress; I probably thought the poem was about that. When I was fifteen, I remembered it, hunted it out to photocopy and glue it in the front of my journal; this time I think I thought I was so original that everything I did was, like, different. I learnt it by heart, but a couple of weeks ago when I was in a secondhand bookshop looking for a present for my father-in-law for father's day, I came across a beautiful edition of Robert Frost's poems, a Penguin published in the sixties, and now I have a copy of my own. Now, when I read it, I think of all the forks in the roads I've taken, and how many must be ahead of me. I think of the people I met on the roads I ended up on, and how it's hard but still possible to shout through the bushes to my friends who took the other roads. I think about why the road less travelled by usually appeals to me. And I think about how lucky I was to have read this poem when I was little, and to have grown up to have choices.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads onto way,
I doubted if i should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Thank you, Mr Francks.

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