Harkness warms a winter morning

Genny Moriarty's 10th-grade English class pulls apart a poem and builds a rapport.

Patrick Garrity
January 13, 2022

The tappity-tap-tap of laptop keys is the only sound in Phillips Hall’s Room 108. With eyes closed, it could pass for July rain on a pane, but this is a gray January morning, and the term “wind chill” is trending.

Genny Moriarty’s English 320 class is warming up with a writing exercise. What do you think of when you hear the word “tending”? Describe a moment, a memory, of someone caring for you.

The tappity-taps wane, and Moriarty introduces the day’s topic: Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Tending.” Alexander is most famous for her poem “Praise Song for the Day,” composed for and delivered at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She also graced Exeter’s stage in 2019 as part of the Lamont Poetry Series.

Alexander visits this day via YouTube and a recorded recitation of “Tending.” The dozen 10th-graders follow with a collective reading, handing the poem around the Harkness table line-by-line like a bucket brigade fighting a fire.

In the pull-out bed with my brother

in my grandfather’s Riverton apartment

my knees and ankles throbbed from growing,

pulsing so hard they kept me awake.

Moriarty asks the students to peel off into groups of two and three for a few minutes to share their interpretations and note the lines and phrases that jumped out. Then, the group discussion kicks in.

“The last five or six lines don’t really make sense,” Max says.

Did sleep elude me because I could feel

the heft of unuttered love in his tending

our small bodies, love a silent, mammoth thing

that overwhelmed me, that kept me awake

as my growing bones did, growing larger

than anything else I would know?

“I felt those were some of my favorite lines,” says Rowan. “How I interpreted them is that she’s trying to describe the love her grandfather has for them, and how he shows it.”

Adds Avery, “I thought his love was so much, her body can’t hold it all.”

“The word ‘overwhelmed’ …” says Audrey, “like his love is so unconditional and all-encompassing, I guess there’s a sense there’s so much of it, she’s almost taken aback by it.”

Parmis notes Alexander’s word choices belie the poem’s theme of love and caring. “Overwhelming, prison doors, the physical pain she’s feeling … Those are not things usually associated with love,” she says. “Is this a positive poem or negative?”

“I feel like it’s negative,” answers Kenza. “I’m gathering that maybe the narrator has a smaller, less confident sense of herself. Maybe love overwhelms her because maybe she doesn’t think she’s worth it.”

“Love isn’t always perfectly happy,” suggests Hannah. “She’s trying to show the good and bad sides of it.”

Moriarty steers the students back to their own writing for the class’ final few minutes, then sends them off into the January gray, a model Harkness discussion under their belts.