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Tyrone ninth graders commemorate Veterans’ Day with poetry

TAHS students perform poetry to honor veterans
Five students from Mr. Merryman’s ninth grade Academy English class paused for a photograph this past Friday, after their performance of three poems from World War I, to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Armistice or Veterans’ Day. Included in the picture are: Row one, from the left: Morgan Decker, Speech Coach Richard Merryman and Jessica Berg. Row two: William Mills, Stephen Franco, Nicholas Patton and Lauren Lewis. (The Daily Herald/Kris Yaniello)

This past Friday, November 7, before Tyrone schools dismissed for a long Veterans’ Day weekend, the 122 ninth graders in Richard Merryman’s five English classes commemorated the 90th anniversary of Veterans’ Day or Armistice Day, by performing three classic poems, written by a World War I doctor and two soldiers.
As historical background for the World War I student poetry performances, Merryman provided Tyrone’s ninth graders with a brief summary about Armistice or Veterans’ Day. He told students that ninety years ago, at eleven o’clock, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, the Armistice was signed in Europe by Germany, thankfully ending World War I, which had extended from 1914 until 1918.
Merryman also informed Tyrone ninth graders that, according to Tyrone teacher and historian Ralph Wolfgang, in this community, church bells began to peal at sunrise on November 11, 1918, to signal both an ending and a beginning: first, to show that the war in Europe had ended; and second, to signal that public school would begin again after a seven week break — a break taken to combat the world-wide flu epidemic.
During his brief background talk about Armistice Day, this ninth grade English teacher explained how Armistice Day got renamed Veterans’ Day by President Eisenhower in 1954, so that the nation could honor the soldiers who fought, not just in World War I, but in all American wars. Merryman concluded his background talk by encouraging ninth graders to stop by Tyrone’s Soldier Park sometime over the Veterans’ Day holiday, pause before the statue of the World War I Doughboy, and slowly read the names of twenty-one Tyrone soldiers engraved on the American Legion plaque, who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country during the First World War.
Following Merryman’s historical sketch about Armistice or Veterans’ Day, he invited his ninth graders to perform orally three poems composed by a World War I doctor and two soldiers. Most likely, the first World War I poem performed by Tyrone ninth graders got recited, and possibly memorized, by their grandparents and great-grandparents, when they came through the Tyrone school system many years ago. Entitled “In Flanders Field, The Poppies Blow,” this famous poem was composed in 1915 by Canadian Doctor John McCrae, while serving in the trenches of the First World War.
After witnessing 6,000 Canadian soldiers (including his best friend) die in just 48 hours at the Second Battle of Ypres, in France, on May 2, 1915, Dr. John McCrae found himself so emotionally moved that he composed this powerful poem. The poppy flowers remained as one lasting image of McCrae’s poem, causing many military support organizations to adopt the poppy as the official flower of their fund-raising missions.
Following “In Flanders Fields,” the ninth graders moved on to perform a poem by World War I Captain Siegfried Sassoon which poses the question, “Does It Matter?” This poem, by a World War I military captain, vibrates with the tragedy of war. As Sassoon’s poem unfolds, the narrator asks three troubling questions: Does it matter that you lost your legs? Does it matter that you lost your sight? Does it matter that you lost your dreams? The poet then proceeds to criticize the way that casual observers of injured soldiers try to console them by suggesting that people will be kind to them because of their handicaps, and that they can sit in the sun on the terrace and drink beer, while their healthy buddies go out hunting.
Scholars who have studied the powerful World War I poetry of Siegfried Sassoon note that his poems do not parade patriotic propaganda about fighting. Instead, Sassoon’s poems convey the ugly truth of the World War I trenches, including rotting corpses, filth, and hopeless desperation. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry compels readers to reflect that nations should strive to make war “an absolute last resort.”
After “In Flanders Field” and “Does It Matter,” the ninth graders concluded their poetry performance with Wilfred Owen’s poignant piece appropriately titled, “Futility.” In this poem, several grief-stricken onlookers believe that if they can drag a farm-boy soldier into the sunlight, that the power of the sun will bring him back to life. They reason that since the sun brings seeds to life, and causes the earth to break into bloom each spring, that surely it can revive a farm-boy soldier, who has fallen victim to a World War I bullet. In the end, they come to realize that the sun does not have the power to bring a person back to life, even as they sigh, “If anything might rouse him now/The kind old sun would know!”
Literary authorities who have studied the poetry of Wilfred Owen so often have noted that this writer captured all the power and horror of World War I, because he fought so valiantly there that he earned the Military Cross for gallantry from England. How tragic that Wilfred Owen composed so many of his most powerful war poems in the valley of the shadow of death. He died in action on November 4, 1918, exactly one week before World War I ended. And even years after his death, readers marvel that as a soldier, Owen did not pity himself, but rather, through his poems, expressed so much sympathy for other soldiers, surrounded by the horror of war.
As they concluded their performance of these three war poems to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day and the close of World War I, Merryman emphasized that, in addition to all of their other duties, one of the vital responsibilities of America’s public schools is to mold young people into faithful citizens of this country.
Concluded Merryman, “I can think of no better way to do this than to help young people appreciate where we have been, by performing the poetry of the past. For as the celebrated historian David McCullough reminds us, we will never understand where we are going as a nation, unless we have some appreciation of where we have been. On this 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, hopefully these three poems from World War I will enable Tyrone ninth graders to understand the future, by appreciating where we have been in the past.”