As I toured the high school a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to see students in Jack Moore’s theatre arts class reciting William Blake’s classic poem The Tyger. When I asked about it, Mr. Moore explained that he routinely asks students to learn a variety of classical and contemporary poems to help them, among other things, learn how to articulate and enunciate their words.
Students memorizing poems under the guidance of teachers who understand the power of language and the value of studying great literature is music to my ears.
For six years, I worked with the Poetry Foundation and National Arts Endowment in creating and implementing Poetry Out Loud, a national recitation contest that provides free teaching resources to classrooms across the country and annually awards $50,000 in student awards and school stipends.
The study of great literature is part of a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. Research shows that studying poetry helps students understand the way in which language is constructed. It helps students learn how to write coherent sentences and paragraphs. It helps students learn that most necessary of life skills—how to successfully communicate.
Research also shows that the consistent presence of a single caring adult in a young person’s life can make the difference between that child staying in school or dropping out, between the child realizing her potential or failing to achieve her dreams. Many times, a teacher or a coach or a school staff member plays that role in a student’s life.
The teacher who gave my adolescent self the confidence and the skills to succeed was Ruth Michaud.
For thirty years, Mrs. Michaud was a much-beloved English teacher at Mount Vernon High School. With her signature wit, high expectations, uncompromising standards, sophisticated style, exacting intellect, and her unfailing kindness and generosity, Mrs. Michaud taught a generation MVHS students to be readers, writers, and engaged citizens of the world.
Through her teaching of poetry, literature, and composition, as well as her personal attention and devotion to students as individuals, she left an indelible mark on me. She truly changed my life.
Mrs. Michaud taught me to how to punctuate a sentence and construct an argument. She also taught me how to speak with empathy and curiosity. She was strict. She never let me off easy. She insisted on rigor, on discipline, on thinking and working harder. She pushed me to weigh what I witnessed, to think critically and from different perspectives, to develop a vocabulary of compassion and justice, to study, to be precise, to edit, and then to trust my imagination, my intelligence, and my vision of the world.
It was my great good fortune to be in Mrs. Michaud’s classroom many times during my high school career. For the last twenty-five years, moreover, I have been fortunate to call her my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. Mrs. Michaud was sharp and bright and brilliant, and I will be forever grateful for the model she set of a life lived generously, in service to truth and education. It’s no exaggeration to say that Mrs. Michaud was, and is, my hero.
Ruth Michaud died on September 13, 2014. I miss her being in this world and I work every day to live up to her example and honor her tremendous legacy.