If I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of my classmates as I stand in front of them. Blank stares filling the room. Eyes growing wider. Their bodies shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Friends looking downward and away, not wanting to witness the unraveling that stood before them. It was my ninth grade English class. Our teacher, Ms. Bayes, had assigned each student a poem to recite in front of the entire class. If I remember correctly, mine was a Robert Frost poem. I’d read over it dozens of times in the days before I was to read it aloud. I practiced the rhythm of the words. The flow. The pauses. I was as ready as I could be. When my turn arrived, I walked quietly to the podium at the front of the room. I looked out in front of me at twenty peers and my teacher, who stood at the back of the room. I felt a racing in my chest. It sounded loud, thundering. I recognized it as a growing panic tinged with fear. Slowly, I began to read.
“The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.” I took a deep breath and continued,
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;”
I paused, noticing that Ms. Bayes’s room was suddenly sweltering. I felt like I was wearing layers of thermal underwear stacked beneath sweatshirts and winter coats on a mid August afternoon. Sweat was starting to pool and bead inside my shirt. I thought to myself, “I’m in trouble.”
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;”
The words sounded wrong as I spoke them aloud. Disjointed. Something was wrong with my voice. It sounded tight and it shook like branches in a fierce wind as the words tumbled out. Each word was spoken with great labor and I was nearly out of breath. Had I been running? No, I was reciting a poem. Why couldn’t I breathe? I was never going to get through this. As I finished the second stanza, I noted that my fingers matched my voice, trembling as they clutched the papers in hand.
But then something happened that I will never forget. I heard Ms. Bayes’s voice from inside my panic strickened mind. She was asking me to pause just a minute. She had a few questions to ask the class. My eyes looked up into hers and connected for the briefest of seconds, but in that time I knew. She was saving me. She was tossing out the proverbial life preserver. “Hold on tight, I’ve got you,” she whispered. She was giving me a moment to collect myself. A moment to breathe. A moment to summon my inner warrior.
She walked across the back of the room asking, “What do we know so far from this poem? Talk to me about what is happening, the images described.” A few hands went up. Responses were shared. Meanwhile, I was working diligently at regaining my composure. I wondered if reading a poem aloud had ever caused anyone on the face of the earth to die. Or spontaneously combust. Or to burst into tears and then be forced into exile. My heart was still pounding. But I was catching my breath with each passing second. After a few minutes, Ms. Bayes looked at me again and said, “Whenever you are ready, Sarah.”
I marched forward. I was halfway through the poem. Only two stanzas left to muddle my way through. It wasn’t pretty but I spit the words out. And after I read the last two lines,
“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
I felt exhausted. I felt triumphant. I felt grateful.
I sometimes wonder if Ms. Bayes still remembers the courtesy she extended to me on that day almost 20 years ago. She didn’t have to jump in. To give me a moment to collect myself. She could have sat back and watched silently. But her reaction salvaged my experience with poetry, with public speaking, with my ability to press forward in the midst of struggle. Instead of feeling complete humiliation, I felt only partial humiliation coupled with gratitude as I looked at how gracefully, how discreetly she had helped me along that day. That moment always reminds me that it’s often the littlest of graces that we extend to others that resonate. The little actions can be significant.
I’ve always felt a small connection to Ms. Bayes as a result of the events from that day, like we were linked by way of an invisible thread. In truth, I think these invisible threads link us all together, they mark all of our interactions with people. Millions of threads are flowing all around and between us as we talk to neighbors and friends, cashiers and teachers, our kids and coworkers. And sometimes, an exchange with someone wraps and twists and knots and binds the thread between us, changing us and the course we travel ever so slightly. This happens over and over within our lifetime as we weave and wind together. As we laugh and dance, cry and sing. We all change. Our course changes. We change each other. We learn from others. We learn from ourselves.
Nearly fifteen years after I butchered that poem, I was sitting in my local library waiting for my book club to begin. It was a small group of women, all of us different, but bound by the books we shared each month. While we were mostly strangers at the start, we slowly got to know bits and pieces of each other’s lives. For weeks we had started our meetings with each person reading aloud a poem they had selected to share with the group. I reached into my purse that night and pulled out a poem written in green ink on notebook paper. My heart began to beat quickly. My mind flashed back to that day in Ms. Bayes’s class. I thought about all the roads I’d traveled since I’d stumbled through Frost’s poem that long ago day. The girl who was now sitting in the library was not better or worse. Just different. A very different girl than the one of that old English class. And so, when my turn came, I read aloud to the group. I read strong. I read proud. I read these words aloud:
“Sometimes I dream all in pink
Of princess crowns and make believe gowns
Ruffles that shimmer and shine
Dandelions bundled in bouquets of love
Lady bug clips
A smile, a hug
Sometimes I dream all in blue
Of whales that spout and frogs no doubt
Mud pies for one and all
Soft little giggles when a belly is tickled
Superman in air
A grin, a dare
Soon I will snuggle and hold
This baby foretold,
But what will I dream of tonight?”
The women in the room were all looking at me, their faces warm and smiling. After a brief moment, someone asked, “Did you write that? Wait a minute! Are you telling us you’re having a baby?”
“Yes and yes!” I replied. We laughed and cried and shared hugs all around. It was the finest of moments. One that is etched deeply into the fibers of my being. One that I believe, would never have been possible, would never have unfolded with such beauty, if not for the long ago, small graceful gesture of one teacher, Ms. Bayes. I still feel the invisible thread that connected us on the day I butchered Frost. I sense that her thread and a million others have changed me along the way. Sometimes I wonder if we thought about the millions of threads that we carry with us through life, the connections we hold with others and the power we wield each day with our words and actions, would it change the way we face a new day? How we treat our neighbors or kids, our brothers or sisters? The way we speak when we are angry? Would it change the small graces we extend to others? To ourselves? Our threads are flowing, weaving and winding. They are shaping us today and they are shaping our future. It is my hope that as our threads bend and fold, they’ll draw close and unite and that together, we will learn to knit beautifully.