Kathryn Ruth Bloom

A Poem about Sincerity…and Fear

To his face, we called him “Mr. Friedman,” but behind his back my 10th grade English teacher was known as “Sincere Sidney,” a nickname given to him by Donny Smyth, whose hobby was writing funny limericks about our teachers. “Friedman” was not exactly his surname, but close enough; “Sidney” was his given name, and “Sincere” was based on his proclamation the first day of school that, in his class, there were no “right answers” when we talked about literature. Our papers would be graded in part on spelling and grammar, of course, but what really mattered was the sincerity of our ideas, which did not have to conform to accepted opinions as long as they truly reflected our deepest beliefs. “Sincerity,” he said looking sternly at our class, “is all that matters to me.”

This was the early 1960s. The winds of change and rebellion that would shake the United States a few years later were still quiescent, at least in my suburban neighborhood. The handsome young president in the White House would make American great again. My generation, the post-War Baby Boomers, had confidence that we would be the next generation of leaders and bring the world to universal peace and prosperity. Spelling counted, of course, but Sincerity was what really mattered.

That year, we read Julius Caesar and something by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities perhaps. Some poetry, mostly Wordsworth, Keats and Shelly. Then one day, Mr. Friedman assigned a poem by W.H. Auden, “O What Is That Sound: A Ballad.” Written during the early 1930s, it tells of a conversation between a husband and wife who live in a big house on a hill. With growing concern, they watch a troop of “scarlet soldiers” marching determinedly through their town, clearly bent on destruction of an unidentified enemy. the soldiers pass the homes of a doctor, a parson, and a farmer without a visit and march up the hill toward the big house. Abandoning his wife, the husband flees for his life. The soldiers have “broken the lock and splintered the door…their eyes are burning.”

Mr. Friedman led a polite and rather pointless discussion of the poem. Buzzy Cohen made her usual observation about the rhyme scheme and Charlie Rosen made his usual joke about how the husband is trying to escape from his boring grown-up life. Then an idea occurred to me. I raised my hand and said, “Isn’t this poem about the Communist revolution? The “scarlet soldiers” are the “reds.” They’re not after the small tradesmen or the farmer. They are out to destroy the the wealthy capitalists.”
Mr. Friedman’s face turned as scarlet as the soldiers’ jackets. “That is absolute nonsense,” he shouted. “Don’t bother our class with that stupid interpretation.” He went on this vein for a few minutes and then called on one of the popular boys, destined for the Ivy League, who could be counted on to give the right answer.
Mortified, I sat in shock. No one else seemed to notice how angry Mr. Friedman was or the depth of my embarrassment. As always when I was upset or mortified, I imagined I was in the safety of my family home, watching television with my mother. And that was when the memory came back, fleetingly at first and then in vivid recollection.

I was in the early years of elementary school, first or second grade. I am recuperating from a tonsillectomy, which today is probably an in-office procedure, but then required an overnight stay in a hospital plus 10 days at home, most of which I spent sitting on the living- room couch, eating ice cream to sooth my throat. My mother is glued to the television, watching the Army-McCarthy hearings and listening to the accusations of a United States Senator—Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin—that Communists had infiltrated our government, including the military and the State Department. Throughout the country, people had lost their jobs and their livelihoods based on his unproven accusations.

My parents were open-minded liberals, self-educated middlebrow thinkers. The most radical political activity they ever engaged in was voting. Yet one afternoon, as the camera focuses on Senator McCarthy and my mother turned to me and says, “That man is evil. If anyone asks you what your parents read or talk about in the house, tell them you don’t know.”

By the end of the sixties, many in my generation had become outspoken left-wingers, dedicated to the changing a racist and dysfunctional capitalistic system. I have not studied American history in a long time, but I suspect the escapades of the Swinging Sixties are still taught in school. I wonder, however, if students today learn about the original “cancel culture” of the 1950s or about the people whose lives were ruined by lies and innuendoes. But Mr. Friedman clearly remembered. Whether Auden was a Communist or not is best left to his biographers. What he meant by his poem will never be fully known. I forget what grade I received in English that semester, but I have never forgotten Mr. Friedman’s fears for his career, his reputation, his family, his life and his livelihood. And while I never much liked my teacher, I knew Mr. Friedman’s fears were indeed sincere.

About the Author
PhD in English literature, retired public-relations professional, and author whose fiction, columns, reviews and literary criticism have appeared in a variety of publications.
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