Betsy certainly stood out in my tenth-grade English class. She stood out for a number of reasons, first of all because she was six-foot-one, the tallest kid in the class; and secondly because of a unique talent that she possessed – a talent that would eventually present me with a dilemma. The dilemma arose out of Betsy’s exceptionally artful recitation of poems in the classroom. She had a unique talent for dramatic oration… in contrast to her mediocre essays and test scores in my classroom. I struggled when it came time to decide on Betsy’s final grade. At the time, I wondered if I had resolved the dilemma properly. But as I look back on my teaching career, I think that maybe it was the best decision I ever made.
My name is Juanita Evans, and I taught high-school English for thirty-seven years at Wilson High School, in Washington, D.C., before retiring. I had been teaching for only two years when, in 1982, I met Betsy. There were twenty-eight kids in my second-period class that year, many of them bright over-achievers with their sights set on Ivy League colleges. Betsy, though, was not one of those kids. She was about average in intelligence, I thought, and her grades were mostly average, except for typing class where she excelled. Her long-term goals were probably a secretarial job and marriage. Betsy did, though, have that uncommon talent for reciting poems. Oh yes, I should add that she was exceptional in one other way: taking advantage of her height, she played center on the girls’ basketball team, and she was really an exceptional basketball player.
We devoted a good part of the spring semester to poetry. I don’t think poetry gets much attention in high school curricula these days, but this was 1982 – before email and Iphones and all that. My own preference has always been for poems that scan and rhyme, not free-verse poems. So, in the classroom I mainly chose to teach poems by Shelley and Wordsworth, A.E. Housman and e.e. cummings, Yeats and Frost and their like. We read only a few poems by Whitman or Carl Sandburg. I would regularly ask for a volunteer to recite a poem that had been assigned as homework the previous day, but all the kids would avert their gaze when I scanned the room in search of a raised hand – all, that is, except for Betsy.
Betsy, who was naturally outgoing and good-natured – and quite pretty, too – relished the opportunity to stand in front of the class and recite. She seemed to instinctively apprehend the cadence and tempo appropriate for each poem. She also enunciated every word clearly and, above all else, she emoted magnificently. Betsy succeeded in dramatizing every poem, as if she – alone among her emotionally stunted classmates – possessed true insight into the poet’s creative soul.
Whenever Betsy read a poem aloud, every kid in the classroom paid rapt attention. And I did, too. One day, as Betsy was reciting Emily Dickenson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death, I was literally moved to tears. Discreetly dabbing my cheeks with my handkerchief, I hoped not to draw the attention of any student. Several students, I noticed, were themselves on the verge of tears. When the bell rang to end the class, and Betsy had gathered up her things and was moving toward the exit at the front of the room, I called her name and motioned for her to stop by my desk.
“Betsy,” I said, “you read that Dickenson poem so beautifully, I couldn’t help but feel…that the words must have had some personal significance for you…something very meaningful.”
There was a brief pause while Betsy waited for me to say something more. When I didn’t speak, she replied, “No, Mrs. Evans, not really. I’m not sure I even understood that Dickenson poem…or most any poem that I’ve read, to tell you the truth. I just enjoy reading poems out loud when there’s an audience.”
My face must have registered surprise – perhaps I raised my eyebrows -- because Betsy looked a little flustered. After another brief pause, she added a comment sotto voce, “I hope it’s okay with you, Mrs. Evans. That I didn’t understand the poem, I mean.”
“Of course, Betsy,” I replied, “although I suspect that down deep you really did understand what the poet was trying to say. Anyway, we all love hearing you read. Please don’t stop.”
And with that, Betsy exited the room. Did I say that I had a dilemma? Well, I did, at the close of the semester. What final grade should I give Betsy? What grade had she earned? Based upon the essays she wrote, and her test scores, a B - would have been a fair grade. But wasn’t Betsy owed some recognition for her exceptional recitations? Had she not enhanced the poetry experience for all her classmates? I slept on it for a couple of days, then I gave her an A -. I decided that’s what she deserved. It was simply a matter of poetic justice, was it not?
When Betsy’s class graduated two years later, in the spring of 1984, I was present at the ceremony, held in Constitution Hall in downtown Washington, D.C. Afterward, I sought out as many of my former students as I could find, to offer my congratulations and to inquire about their plans for the near future. It wasn’t too difficult to locate Betsy, whose head, crowned by a mortarboard, loomed above most of her classmates. I approached her as she was being embraced by her parents, and I could see tears glistening on her cheeks. As soon as she spotted me, Betsy disengaged from her parents and, beaming from ear to ear, wrapped her long arms around me. “Mrs. Evans,” she said in a low, solemn voice, “I owe everything to you. I can never thank you enough.”
Betsy’s utterance took me by surprise. I was most fond of her, of course, and she had been always respectful of me – but why this sudden effusion of thanks?
“Well, you’re very kind, Betsy…but I should be thanking you, because of the pleasure you always gave me when you recited poems in my class.”
Betsy then gripped both my hands and, stepping back, locked eyes with me. “Mrs. Evans, maybe you don’t know…I’m going to college in the fall!”
I was caught off guard by Betsy’s announcement and could only reply, rather lamely, “How wonderful!” I was too astonished to say more.
“I guess you hadn’t heard, Mrs. Evans. I really should have told you. You know I was on the basketball team, don’t you?” I nodded affirmatively. “Well, near the end of the season in my sophomore year, Coach Everton came up to me and said, “Betsy, you’re good enough that you might be offered a college scholarship. ‘College’ he said! I had never in my life thought of going to college! No one in my family had ever been to college. But coach said that I would have to keep up my grades, that I should aim for a 2.8 GPA at least. And, you know, during my first year at Wilson I wasn’t even making a 2.8 GPA. So I didn’t pay much attention to what coach had said.”
“Betsy, tell Mrs. Evans what changed your mind about college.” That was Betsy’s mother, who came over and warmly hugged me.
“Yes,” said Betsy, “You changed my life, Mrs. Evans. I’m not sure if I really deserved the grade you gave me, the A – in English, but that really encouraged me. After that I decided to work a lot harder and get better grades. And I did. I graduated with a 3.3 GPA.”
“And with a scholarship, I assume. To which school?”
“The University of Maryland. During the last baskeball season, an assistant coach from Maryland – he was a friend of Coach Everton -- came to watch one of our games, and after the game he met with me and said that Maryland would like to offer me a scholarship. Provided, that is, that my grades were good enough. So that’s what happened. In the fall I’ll be enrolling at the University of Maryland, and I can’t wait for classes to begin and for basketball practice to begin. So, it’s a win-win.”
“It was the possibility of a basketball scholarship that motivated you?”
“Yes, it was that…and one other thing.”
“Oh? And what was that, Betsy?” I was certainly curious to hear about the “other thing.”
“Can I show you, Mrs. Evans, rather than tell you?”
And with that, Betsy guided me toward her parents, arranged the three of us in a row and stood facing us. “Now, I’m going to recite a poem that I first learned in Mrs. Evans’s class. Ever since then, I’ve recited this poem to myself every morning when I’ve been riding the bus to school. It has helped to keep me motivated.”
So, standing straight and poised, Betsy proceeded to declaim these verses -- loudly enough that several of the other graduates and their parents who were in the vicinity turned in her direction and paid attention:
“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.”
Betsy had committed to memory a Frost poem that we had studied in my English class two years ago. Once again, tears moistened my eyes. There was not the slightest doubt in my mind that Betsy had deserved her A -. Poetic justice had indeed been rendered.