Amid the bustle of boys just released from school, I searched the crowd for my 12-year-old son, Louis. He approached me with tears in his eyes. Both he and his younger brother, Ben, had competed as finalists in their school’s poetry recitation competition that day. The previous year, the boys had won first place together. But today, in front of a crowd of over one hundred people, Louis had blanked in the first stanza, stood silent for several moments, and then started over, defeated. Ben had won first place for his grade again.
At my sons’ all-boys classical school, students choose poems or dramatic speeches to memorize and recite, first in front of their class, and then in front of a crowd of schoolmates. The winners earn points in a House System and are cheered as heroes by their peers. The boys’ teachers, all of whom are men, also regularly memorize and recite poetry for their students and for their colleagues, inspiring the boys to perform well.
The combination of stirring poetry and intense competition has given these recitations a prominent place in the life of the school, assuring that the boys begin practicing the skills of rhetoric long before they have left the grammar stage of learning, and also cementing the idea that beautiful poetry is an essential part in the life of a man.
Losing a competition teaches valuable lessons as well. For Louis, it took a good talk with Dad and a story from Grandma about her own “most embarrassing moment in front of a crowd” for the tears to dry. That evening at dinner, I heard him gallantly say to his younger brother, “No one had a chance against you.”
I have another son, William, whose special needs would make it difficult for him to benefit from the vigorous culture and intense academic pace of his brothers’ school. Homeschooling is a perfect fit for him, as it provides him the opportunity to pursue a classical education at his own pace and in a less stressful environment. At the same time, I want to inspire in him the same love of poetry I see in my other sons and have him experience the thrill that comes from a successful public oration. Reading and analyzing poetry are essential, but poetry, like drama, must also be read and performed aloud to be fully appreciated.
We can and should take the time in our homeschools to have our students memorize the poetry they study. Even in a homeschool setting, you can provide opportunities for your child to recite in public. Practice performing at family dinner or when guests visit. Organize a children’s poetry recitation through your local homeschool or special-needs support group, church youth group, scout troop, or informal group of friends.
Of course, many children with special needs struggle with anxiety and have difficulty with losing games or competitions. Depending on the needs of your child, a competition may not be the best way to begin with poetry recitation. However, William overcame anxiety and severe perfectionism last summer through such a competition held at a summer day camp. Not only did he win the competition, but now he is earnestly working on earning the medal Memoria Press offers for memorizing Horatius at the Bridge.
While sports and music lessons can provide many of the same benefits of practicing a difficult skill and overcoming anxiety to perform in front of others, poetry recitation is an art that can be accessible to many with special needs. The benefits of poetry recitation may be even greater for our children with special needs than for other children. All in one activity, a child strengthens his memory, practices poise, eye contact, and enunciation, and fills his heart and soul with beauty. These are gifts he will carry with him throughout his entire life.