Long ago I took an undergrad course titled Oral Interpretation of Literature. I needed two speech classes to graduate with my education degree, and it happened to fit my schedule. I had no idea what I was walking into. I didn't know that a drama professor taught it.
Like myself, most of the students were education majors thinking we had found an easy class to balance out our heavier ones. No textbook required. Our first assignment was to take turns standing in front of the class to read “Dover Beach.” We were to read aloud and keep eye contact.
What we didn't know was that we would be excoriated for everything from enunciation to volume to facial expression and posture. It was eye-opening to say the least. I had no expectations. But Professor Lewandowski did. Within two weeks I had two Cs and I was proud of them.
Professor Lew promptly coached us as he would an actor presenting a monologue, yet he told us the class was not about drama. Everything we said was about expression, the value of words.
He thought that teachers could perform not for performance’s sake, mind you, but because that was how you appreciated the words you said. He reminded us that we would have a captive audience every day of the week in our classrooms after all.
Every other week we presented a poem, a passage from a novel, or a bit from a short story or a play. We learned from each other's mistakes, but we also learned from each other's presentations. And by presentation I mean that moment of beauty when the words, the volume, and the expression create a moment of beauty for the audience, a moment of awe.
After presenting four times in class, I still had a C. I was dumbfounded because I was trying my hardest. So I finally stayed after class and asked for help. I wanted to figure out this riddle, this thing I didn't understand how to do. He spent ten minutes helping me polish one section of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” just one. But it was enough. After all these weeks, this little bit of practice and coaching was what I needed. By repetition, he taught me in those moments to read the lilt in the Rossetti’s rhyme, to play with different words.
I don't remember if I got an A or a B by the end of the semester, but I do remember improving, performing a section of Leo Tolstoy's “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” It was a challenge, but I tried and performed, reading and engaging the audience, and using the tools Professor Lew had shown me. I may have done a decent job.
After all these years, decades, I still have a file of notes from that course. I have not forgotten. But more than that, I know interpreting the literature and poetry I teach adds everything to how my students hear. I only hope that my efforts lead my students to the same wonder I experienced at age 19.