“The Fool’s Prayer”

Carol A. Hand

This is the second installment of sharing older posts while I focus on surviving the beginning of a new semester. It deals with the beginning journey of discovering a philosophy of education.

Sometimes important life lessons are painful. We may learn what we don’t want to be when we grow up. As someone who never entertained being a college professor, I learned a most valuable lesson as a young child about the difference between being an educator who encourages excellence and critical thinking rather than one who serves as an agent of normalization and social control.

I have had the honor of working with students who saw the world through many different lenses. Some were smarter, some kinder, some were better thinkers and writers, and many traveled further or overcame challenges I couldn’t even imagine. It was and still is my intention to encourage others to discover and express their gifts.

I might not have realized the importance of this approach without experiencing a third-grade teacher who did quite the opposite. She led me down a path of critical reflection at an early age and I have learned to be deeply grateful for that lesson.

***

Third grade. Our assignment was to find a poem we could memorize and recite to the class. I grew up in a working class home with few books: my mother’s text about practical nursing and her high school English text, Adventures in American Literature, and my father’s set of Popular Mechanics, the poor man’s version of an encyclopedia. Given the limited choices, I read through my mother’s English literature text and selected the poem that had the most meaning to me, “The Fool’s Prayer.”

The Fool’s Prayer
Edward Rowland Sill (1841-1887)

The royal feast was done; the King
Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: “Sir Fool,
Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!”

The jester doffed his cap and bells,
And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
Behind the painted grin he wore.

He bowed his head, and bent his knee
Upon the Monarch’s silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: “O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“No pity, Lord, could change the heart
From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!

“‘Tis not by guilt the onward sweep
Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
‘Tis by our follies that so long
We hold the earth from heaven away.

“These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
Go crushing blossoms without end;
The hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
Among the heart-strings of a friend.

“The ill-timed truth we might have kept –
Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say –
Who knows how grandly it had rung?

“Our faults no tenderness should ask,
The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders – oh in shame
Before the eyes of heaven we fall.

“Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but ‘Thou, O Lord,
Be merciful to me, a fool!”

The room was hushed: In silence rose the
The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
“Be merciful to me, a fool!”

(H.S. Schweikert, R. B. Inglis, & J. Gehlmann, Eds., 1936, pp. 670-671)

Presentation day was one of nervous anticipation for me. I was excited to share what I thought was an important message with my classmates. But my anxiety grew as I sat through the recitation of nursery rhymes and “Twinkle-twinkle little star.” “Oops,” I thought, “Maybe I made a mistake, but it’s too late now.” When my turn came, I walked to the front of the class and began. I don’t remember how my peers reacted as I recited the poem, probably with exaggerated drama, nor could I see my teacher’s expression. She was seated at her desk behind me. All I remember is from that day forward, my teacher treated me as if I were a leper. The first time I talked to a classmate seated next to me after my performance, the teacher singled me out in front of the class.

You may not need to listen to what I’m talking about, but the rest of the class does. From now on when we are discussing reading, your job is to stand by the side blackboard and draw.”

Perhaps it was meant as a punishment, but it didn’t seem to be a marker of shame to my peers so I was okay with it. And I really didn’t mind being freed from the prison of a desk as the teacher droned on and on, talking at us. I was free to daydream and create. I was free to ponder the message of the jester. Perhaps my role in life was to let kings and teachers know that they were as human as those over whom they exercised sovereignty. Yet unlike the jester, I couldn’t wear a painted grin. I was born with a face that couldn’t mask feelings, and I didn’t have the playfulness and self-assurance necessary to be a clown. So instead, I became quiet. I learned not to appear too smart – to avoid drawing any attention to myself. But it was too late. I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.

jester

Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy, Jester Logo by Lesley-Lycanthropy on deviantART
lesley-lycanthropy.deviantart.com

***

Life has granted me many more chances to test out ways to share information that feels important. Perhaps others I have encountered on my journey found the ideas timely and helpful. Like the jester, though, my responsibility is merely to share what flows through me in the moment through words, silences, and actions. I may never know whether anyone is listening. That is as it should be for the messages belong to anyone who is paying attention and understands the meaning in their own way…

27 thoughts on ““The Fool’s Prayer””

  1. Poetry has great power both within our own souls and within the culture at large. You experienced this truth early. I often find it sad that we educate our children to be honest yet the minute they get into the work world as adults, the LAST thing most people want to hear is the truth. No wonder adolescents react so strongly against the adult world; it’s built on a fundamental hypocrisy: “Tell the truth, but only if it doesn’t hurt someone’s financial or power interests.” Fortunately, the great gift of poetry is its ability to provide balm for the soul.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Bob. I agree with your observations about bad teachers. They can be a source of powerful lessons if you are able to survive their unwanted malevolent attention. Sadly, I have seen them destroy people’s lives and spent much of my time in academia trying to prevent that from happening to the gifted, vulnerable students and colleagues I worked with. I am so grateful for a job now that has rarely put me in that position.

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      1. Good teachers are rare in the school system. Lisa and I never tried to protect our kids from the bad teachers. Some were the same ones that taught us. We told them, sometimes you can learn as much from the bad ones as the good. Because of where we live, we have a poor school system. It’s unfortunate. Our children were able to rise above. We are proud of them. But that’s not the same for the vulnerable kids. Good, dedicated teachers are wonderful but hard to come by. I think most start out trying to do their best but get beaten down by the apathy the system fosters, while the worst of the worst get promoted.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “I had already learned that those of us who are not kings cannot remain silent forever. If we don’t find effective ways to rein-in kings, things will never change.”

    Amen, Carol!

    “Be merciful to me, a fool!”, I pray.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your teacher was a small mind, a controller, not a real teacher but an indoctrinator who felt challenged and threatened. How well I know the type but to compensate there were others who pushed, encouraged, challenged ever more, the real teachers.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve always liked stories about “good” teachers whether true stories, based on true stories, or pure fiction. I own the DVD’s “Dangerous Minds”, “Music of the Heart”, “Stand and Deliver” and “The Emperors’ Club”.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Such gifts you have and such a wonderful life. That teacher was just not prepared for such wisdom for such a little girl. A good teacher would have thanked, maybe hugged you, and engaged the class in a discussion of the lessons in the poem. You are that good teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A gem of a post. It reminds me of so many unkindness I had experienced from adult people, when I was a child. Sometimes it was mindless, sometimes it was intentionally cruel. This touching story that you tell, belongs to the second category. How do you handle this? Have you been able to forgive this teacher? This is something I struggle with. I want to let go of the anguish that I feel whenever I remember such an incident from my childhood. I want to forgive those adults from my heart. I think if I can forgive them, it will stop hurting. But I can’t.

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    1. Thank you so much for another thoughtful comment, Pirootb, and for sharing your own experiences. Your feelings remind me of something Kahlil Gibran wrote “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers” (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/117616-i-have-learned-silence-from-the-talkative-toleration-from-the).

      Sometimes, I felt that way also in the past. But years ago I learned to forgive unkind or poorly informed teachers because the lessons they taught me were valuable. At some point, I realized that I was responsible for learning as much as I could about topics that interested me and stopped expecting teachers to be the only source for what I learned. In graduate school, I learned when to challenge some of my teachers for sharing outdated or inaccurate information and when to remain silent and just get a good grade. I could sense when trying to communicate with people who thought they knew the “truth” would be a wasted effort.

      I also wonder if it became easier to forgive others when I became a college teacher so I could forgive myself for all of the mistakes I made because I was, and am, still learning, too.

      Again, thank you for sharing your astute and honest thoughts and observations.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s disorientating to be criticized or punished — treated negatively — for inadvertently being “too smart.” What a dilemma! Taking care not to appear too smart! How many women, and men, have lived diminished lives treading with care in a society — or home — that fears intelligence within its ranks? My question is rhetorical. We know the number is too great to count. It’s endemic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Allyson, it is always a gift to hear from you! Thank you so much for sharing important insights about living in a time when intelligence is seen as a deficiency and truth is a fearful thing to express.

      Like

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