Wednesday, March 29, 2006

My Fourth Grade Poetry Muse

In honor of National Poetry Month (coming up in April), which happens to be the theme of an upcoming Carnival of Children's Literature, and because I've been wanting to post this poem, let me tell you about my 4th grade teacher.

Miss Hackenbracht was one of my favorite teachers ever. Not because she was so nice--many of the kids thought she was mean. Not because she taught such memorable lessons--I remember very few of them. Certainly not because of her name--I remember we spent the first week of school drilling on its proper spelling.

But I loved Miss Hackenbracht because she was a great teacher--and because she read poetry to us. It wasn't even her area, as I recall. I know she taught us social studies and science, because I remember the planets drawn in colored chalk on her board and I remember going outside to place one hand on her little white Mustang and the other on a big black car she had parked next to, to see which had reflected or absorbed the heat. I also remember drawing a cartoon about producers, middlemen and consumers of milk from an imaginary dairy farm complete with cartoon cows, as an assignment for her. Another teacher, I distinctly remember, taught reading, spelling and grammar to us--but they must have let Miss Hackenbracht teach us writing, and she mostly taught us to write poetry.

It was from her that I first heard of a cinquain and a haiku, or tried my hand at writing one, working my way up to a ballad which was probably the crowning jewel of my 4th grade year, a cowboy's ode to his horse called "Boastin' 'Bout Good Ol' Lightnin.' " She started us out, I remember, with the ongoing game of "terse verse." Like "What is a rosy washing place? A pink sink!" The "center puzzler?" The "middle riddle!" My best friend and I would banter them back and forth all during lunch and recess, trying to stump each other.

Miss Hackenbracht would always make it seem like a great privilege--IF we had a few minutes left before it was time to go to lunch, or go to our next class, or get on the bus--to get to listen to poetry. She never read from a poetry book that I recall, but from a poetry notebook which she had compiled of her favorite poems, and she would insist upon absolute stillness while she read. If anyone made a sound she would instantly stop, look around slowly with a narrow-eyed stare, and wait an eternity before continuing. If it happened twice, she'd put the notebook away.

My favorites were the funny ones. We all loved "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout, who would not take the garbage out" and I can still recall phrases like "And so it piled up to the ceilings--coffee grounds, potato peelings..." and "...from Memphis to the Golden Gate, till Sarah met an awful fate, which I cannot right now relate, because the hour is much too late..." (You must read the whole clever and hilarious poem here.)

Someone gave us Where the Sidewalk Ends when our first child was born, so I've been able to enjoy "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" for years with my own children. But another poem that Miss H used to read to us has haunted me, because for years I've been able to recall so much of it, but I could never find it in any anthologies. Then, since starting this blog and becoming more attuned to the vast capacities of search engines, it occurred to me to Google on a few lines...and lo and behold!...the poem I had not heard in entirety in thirty years leaped off the computer screen at me.

So, with a hat tip to Miss Hackenbracht (and with enduring thanks for launching me in my love affair with the cadence of well-chosen words), here's my 4th grade favorite:

The Mortifying Mistake
by Anna Maria Pratt

I studied my tables over and over
And backward and forward too
But I couldn't remember six times nine
And I didn't know what to do
'Til my sister told me to play with my doll
And not to bother my head
"If you call her 'Fifty-four' for awhile
You'll learn it by heart', she said.

So I took my favorite, Mary Anne,
Though I thought 'twas a dreadful shame
To give such a perfectly lovely child
Such a perfectly horrible name,
And I called her my dear little Fifty-four
A hundred times 'til I knew
The answer of six times nine
As well as the answer of two times two.

Next day, Elizabeth Wigglesworth,
Who always acts so proud
Said, "Six times nine is fifty-two,
And I nearly laughed out loud
But I wished I hadn't when teacher said,
"Now Dorothy, tell if you can."
For I thought of my doll and sakes alive!
I answered, "Mary Anne!"


Janet McConnaughey said...

Now if Mary Anne's "aunt" had pointed out the *really* easy way to remember the product of a single-digit number multiplied by nine ... the verse wouldn't have been nearly as funny. :)

My own fourth-grade favorites included
"Eletelephony" and "Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death" (and other verses in Hillaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, his Beasts for Bad Children and More Beasts for Worse Children.)

I can't remember how many times I read "Noah and Jonah and Cap'n John Smith" to my kid brother, who was in first grade when I was in fourth.

At A Hen's Pace said...


What fun choices! I haven't read "Matilda" in years, and "Noah..." is completely new to me. My boys will love it!

We just read "Eletelephony" this morning. They loved it--didn't remember it from several years ago, when we last had that particular book out.

Anonymous said...

I am curious who the "Miss Hackenbracht" was and where she taught. I am related to Hackenbrachts in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California. Any connection?


At A Hen's Pace said...


I wonder if you are related? She was in Ohio. Email me at so I can email you back with the specifics.

Jenny D said...

Thank you for posting The Mortifying Mistake. When I was a child, my grandmother used to recite it to me and I learned it by heart. I realized about 20 years ago after my grandma was gone that I had forgotten all but the final verse. Because it was such a good memory from childhood, I actually prayed that someday, somehow I would find the poem again. It occured to me the other day that I might try googling it. So, I googled "sakes alive Maryanne" and here it was!! It made me feel a bit closer to my grandma again. So, thanks!

Just Kim said...

I just Googled this poem I found in my teacher's guide and you were the first "hit". I home school and wanted to find out a little more about it. My guide says "author unknown".

I am trying to instil in my children a love of poetry that I did not have as a child. I do not remember much at all being taught poetry before high school and at that point, it all seemed as a foreign language. It is only recently that I have come to appreciate it.

William Knapp said...


Edgar A. Guest

Figure it out for yourself, my lad.
You’ve got all that the greatest of men have had,
Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes,
And a brain to use if you would be wise.
With this equipment they all began,
So start for the top and say, "I Can."

Look them over, the wise and the great,
They take their food from a common plate,
And similar knives and forks they use,
With similar laces they tie their shoes.
The world consider them brave and smart,
But you’ve got all they had when they made their start.

You can triumph and come to skill,
You can be great if you only will.
You’re well equipped for the fight you choose,
You have arms and legs and a brain to use.
And the man who has risen great deeds to do,
Began his life with no more than you.

You are the handicap you must face,
You are the one who must choose your place,
You must say where you want to go,
How much you will study the truth to know.
God has equipped you for life, but He
Lets you decide what you want to be.

Courage must come from the soul within,
The man must furnish the will to win.
So figure it out for yourself, my lad,
You were born with all the great have had,
With your equipment they all began.
Get hold of yourself, and say: "I Can."
I learned this poem when I was in the 4th grade