Speaking Clearly and Mr. Tolson

    

“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall.”Oliver Wendell Holmes

As an educator, I’ve always found it very important to enunciate each and every sound for my students as I spoke and also to be a model for how they should speak. My students came from all over the world and I would put them in situations where, even though they didn’t know English, they were supplied the words in order to make them feel comfortable, have the new words roll around their tongues, feel good about themselves and shine. The classroom was our stage and we also used the auditorium stage as well as marching into other classrooms and performing. They loved performing, even if they just entered my classroom that day!  It was always an accepting learning environment. A few years ago, the movie, “The Great Debaters” came out starring Denzel Washington as the debate team’s coach, Melvin B. Tolson. Well, today is Mr. Tolson’s birthday and he was born in 1898 in Missouri.

In 1924, Melvin Tolson accepted a position as instructor of English and speech at Wiley College. While at Wiley, he taught, wrote poetry and novels, coached football and directed plays. In 1929, Tolson coached the Wiley debate teams, which established a ten-year winning streak. The Debate Team beat the larger black schools of its day like Tuskegee, Fisk and Howard.

 After a visit to Texas, Langston Hughes  wrote that “Melvin Tolson is the most famous Negro professor in the Southwest. Students all over that part of the world speak of him, revere him, remember him and love him.”

 According to James Farmer, Tolson’s drive to win, to eliminate risk, meant that his debaters were actors more than spontaneous thinkers. Tolson wrote all the speeches and the debate team memorized them. He drilled them on every gesture and every pause. Tolson was so skilled at the art of debating that he also figured out the arguments that opponents would make and wrote rebuttals for them-before the actual debate.

 In 1930, he pursued a master’s degree in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; met V.F. Calverton, editor of Modern Quarterly; wrote “Cabbages and Caviar” column for The Washington Tribune and organized sharecroppers in South Texas.

 In 1935, he led the Wiley Debate Team to the national championship to defeat the University of Southern California before an audience of eleven hundred people. In 1947 he was appointed poet laureate of Liberia by President V. S. Tubman. He left Wiley to become professor of English and Drama at Langston University in Oklahoma.”Wiley College

Melvin B. Tolson was also a writer and a poet. I love his ode to Louis Armstrong:

                                      Old Satchmo’s

                   gravelly voice and tapping foot and crazy notes

                                      set my soul on fire.

                                            If I climbed

                         the seventy-seven steps of the Seventh

                 Heaven, Satchmo’s high C would carry me higher!

                      Are you hip to this, Harlem?  Are you hip?

                           On Judgment Day, Gabriel will say

                                  after he blows his horn:

                    “I’d be the greatest trumpeter in the Universe,

                         if old Satchmo had never been born!”

 

 

 

“Who Has Seen the Wind?”-Christina Rossetti

    

“My Heart is Like a Singing Bird.”-Christina Rossetti

Didn’t you just love that poem as a child?  I know I did and I shared it with hundreds of students throughout my career. It’s a great poem to memorize, learn English, visualize, act out, read aloud, use for choral speaking, illustrate…Uh-oh, there’s the teacher in me!  

Italian-British poet, Christina Rossetti was born today in 1830 in London. She came from such a creative family of artists, professors, writers, critics. Her poetry wasn’t limited to poems for children; she wrote about love, death, pain (she suffered from neuralgia and Graves Disease and died from breast cancer) and other topics. “Almost every poem leaves on the mind a sense of satisfaction, of rightness and fitness; we are not led to think of art, but we notice, almost unconsciously, the way in which every word fits into its place, as if it could not possibly have been used otherwise.”Arthur Symons

Her older brother, Dante Gabriel was an artist; her dad was a poet; her mom and sister were very religious and Christina joined them in their charity work, especially after her dearly beloved dad died.  “Christina’s works were largely forgotten, until their rediscovery in the late 20 th century. She is now lauded as one of the greatest poets of the Victorian age.”Literary Worlds: Illumination of the Mind

 

Remember by Christina Rossetti

 

Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day

You tell me of our future that you planned:

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.