"Class, shall we tell Mr. Leroy what we're studying?"
"Poetry!" the second-graders said loudly, all together.
Mr. Leroy made a face. "I was hoping you'd be studying volcanoes. I'm afraid poetry might be booorring."
The children were silent for a moment. So was Mrs. Pidgeon. Then Gooney Bird stood at her seat. Today she was wearing a fringed cowboy vest over her denim overalls. Gooney Bird put her hands on her hips. "Mr. Leroy," she said, "I am shocked that you would say that!"
"Yeth!" Felicia Ann said. "Me, too!"
"So," Mr. Leroy said, "poetry isn't boring?"
"No!" the entire class said.
"It's hard, though," Tyrone pointed out. "You gotta work hard to get it right. Every word gotta be right."
"You have to learn about couplets and stuff," Ben said.
"And haiku," Keiko added.
"And today," Mrs. Pidgeon told the principal, "we are going to do..." She pointed to the word she had written on the board. "Limericks."
"Funny poems!" Malcolm called out.
Mr. Leroy leaned back in the chair. "Well," he said. "I think I'll stay for a while! I'd like to learn about funny poems myself!"
"Did your mother write a limerick, Mrs. Pidgeon?" Gooney Bird asked.
"She did. I'll read her limerick right now, and then I'll describe how we can create our own." The teacher unfolded a paper.
"Mrs. Pidgeon's mom was a poet," Tricia whispered to Mr. Leroy in explanation.
"Is," Gooney Bird corrected. "Once you're a poet, you're always, always a poet."
"And your feet show it, 'cuz they're Long-fellows," Malcolm added. "Sorry," he said, when he realized that Mrs. Pidgeon was giving him a look.
"This poem has no title," Mrs. Pidgeon said when the class was quiet and waiting. "It's surprising, but often limericks don't have titles. So I'll just start." She began to read.
A very rich lady named Dot
Spent a fortune on buying a yacht,
Then let out a wail
While trying to sail,
For it started to float but did not.
The children laughed. "My cousin tipped over in a canoe once!" Barry said.
"I saw Titanic! The whole ship sank!" Nicholas said.
"I saw Titanic too!"
Mrs. Pidgeon played a chord on the piano and the class became quiet. "Boring?" she asked. She was looking at Mr. Leroy.
"Nope. Not boring," Mr. Leroy said with a smile.
"Okay, class. That was a limerick. A limerick is often funny, and it usually begins with a description of a person in the first line. Shall we try creating a limerick together?"
"Yes!" the children called out.
"All right. I'm going to start by giving you a first line. And I'll use my own name."
"No fair!" said Chelsea. "Nothing rhymes with Pidgeon!"
Mrs. Pidgeon chuckled. "It's not necessary to use a last name. How about this?" she suggested. '"There once was a teacher named Pat'?"
She looked around. "Think about words that rhyme with Pat. Who can come up with's. the next line? Hands, please. Don't call out."
For a moment, no hands went up. Everyone sat silently, thinking. Someone murmured, "Fat." Another child said, "Cat," in a low voice. Then, all at once, six hands were raised. Mrs. Pidgeon looked around the room. "Mr. Leroy?" she said, pointing to him. The principal had raised his hand. "Second line?"
"'Who gave up the chair where she sat,'" Mr. Leroy said.
"Cool!" Tyrone called out. "Good job, dude!"
"All right," Mrs. Pidgeon said. "Thank you, Mr. Leroy. Now we have the first two lines." She wrote them on the board. "Next we need two shorter, rhyming lines. Any thoughts, class?"
Again the children and the principal became silent. Suddenly Gooney Bird stood up and said loudly, "Eureka!"
"Eureka?" asked Mrs. Pidgeon.
"That means 'I got it!' You say it when a great idea comes to you unexpectedly," Gooney Bird explained.
"And a great idea has?"
"Yep!" said Gooney Bird with a grin. "I thought of the whole rest of the limerick. It's a eureka moment."
"Good for you. Would you like to come to the front of the class to recite it?"
"Yes. But wait." Gooney Bird opened the lid of her desk and rummaged inside. She took out something that looked familiar: pale green and ruffled. Today Gooney Bird's hair was not in ponytails. But she grabbed half of her red hair in one hand and pulled it through one leg hole, and then she did the same with the other half. Finally she carefully arranged the elastic waistband around her head and across her forehead. Wearing her headpiece, she went to the front of the room and recited the limerick:
There once was a teacher named Pat
Who gave up the chair where she sat.
She tried to write verse,
But it only got worse
Till she warmed up her brain with a hat.
The class applauded. "You may borrow my hat, Mrs. Pidgeon," Gooney Bird said, "anytime you want. Or you can make your own, of course."
"Of course," Mrs. Pidgeon said. "Next? How about each of you try using your own name in a first line? No need to write an entire limerick. Let's start with first lines. I'll walk around the class in case anyone needs help." She looked at the principal. Usually his visits to classrooms lasted only a few minutes. But Mr. Leroy had picked up a paper and pencil and it did not look as if he were planning to leave.
For a few moments the classroom was quiet, with heads bent over, pencils moving on papers. Then, here and there, groaning started.
"Nothing rhymes with my name!" Malcolm groaned. "Nothing!"
Gooney Bird leaned over from her desk and whispered a suggestion. "'A boy who had triplets at home,'" she suggested. "That's a good first line, and it tells about you. It doesn't have to use your name," she said.
"How about me?" Keiko wailed.
Mrs. Pidgeon was headed to Keiko's desk when Gooney Bird spoke again. "I have an idea for Keiko, Mrs. Pidgeon! How about A young girl of Asian descent'? Lots of things rhyme with descent!"
One by one, the children created their first lines. Mrs. Pidgeon wrote every one neatly on the board. Then the class added second, rhyming lines. Some were quite easy; others were very, very hard.
A boy who had triplets at home
Sometimes needed a brush and a comb
A young girl of Asian descent
Decided to live in a tent
A redhead named Gooney Bird Greene
Wore a hat that was hardly routine
There once was a dude named Tyrone
Who frequently talked on the phone
A young girl named Chelsea explained
That she liked to be out when it rained
"Mr. Leroy?" Gooney Bird said when she noticed that the principal was still working. His tongue was wedged between his teeth. "Time to put your pencil down."
"I'm not done," Mr. Leroy said.
Gooney Bird looked at Mrs. Pidgeon and raised her eyebrows as if she were asking a silent question. Mrs. Pidgeon shrugged. "Let's let him continue on his own," she whispered.
Together the class worked on the limericks they had begun while Mr. Leroy, his head bent over his paper, wrote and erased, wrote and erased. Sometimes he sighed and stared out the window.
"He's thinking," Keiko pointed out.
"Yes," said Gooney Bird. "Occasionally it helps to look at the sky and make your mind go blank for a minute. Why don't we all try it, because we're sort of stuck on Tyrone's limerick."
The entire class, including Mrs. Pidgeon (but not Mr. Leroy—he was bent over his paper again), stared through the window at the sky.
"My mind never goes blank!" Malcolm groaned. "My thoughts just keep whirling and whirling!"
"Shhhh," said Gooney Bird. "Silence helps."
Gradually, with breaks for staring at the sky, the class began to finish the limericks on the board. Some were very funny and made them laugh aloud. Mr. Leroy never looked up.
"Okay, class," Mrs. Pidgeon said at last. "We haven't finished them all, but we did some good ones, and you got to see how limericks work. I'll write these down and read them to my mother this evening."
"They'll make her laugh," Tyrone said. "Especially mine!"
"Yes, they will." Mrs. Pidgeon looked at the board and chuckled. She read Tyrone's limerick aloud.
There once was a dude named Tyrone
Who frequently talked on the phone.
While having some fun,
He dialed 911,
And they handcuffed him till he was grown.
"Mine, too!" said Gooney Bird. "Read mine to your mom!"
Mrs. Pidgeon, still laughing, read Gooney Bird's limerick.
A redhead named Gooney Bird Greene
Wore a hat that was hardly routine.
We couldn't complain,
For it warmed up her brain,
And at least it was perfectly clean.
"Oh, my goodness!" Mrs. Pidgeon looked at the clock. "You know what? It's lunchtime already. We spent half the morning on limericks! And we never got to our social studies lesson. I wonder if the principal will be mad at us."
She was looking toward Mr. Leroy when she said that. He didn't hear her. He was looking at his paper and chewing on the eraser at the end of his pencil.
"I bet the principal is gonna punish us!" Tyrone said loudly. But Mr. Leroy didn't hear him. He was writing again.
"Earth to Principal!" Malcolm said into his fake microphone. But Mr. Leroy didn't look up.
"Class, on the count of three," Mrs. Pidgeon suggested, "outdoor voices. One ... two ...three!"
"MR. LEROY!" the class shouted.
Finally the principal looked up. "I did it!" he said. "I wrote a limerick!"
"It's lunchtime, Mr. Leroy," Gooney Bird said, "and I have a dill-pickle-and-tofu sandwich I am eager to eat."
"May I read my limerick aloud?" the principal asked. The children all nodded. Mrs. Pidgeon looked at the clock again.
Mr. Leroy stood in front of the class. They could see that his paper was covered with eraser marks and cross-outs and scribbles, just like theirs. But he looked very proud.
A man named John Thomas Leroy
Hated poetry when just a boy.
But the second grade thought
That he ought to be taught.
Soon limericks brought him some joy!
He bowed, and the class applauded politely. "Gotta run," Mr. Leroy said. "I didn't realize it was so late. I have a lunch appointment with the superintendent of schools." Carefully he folded his paper and put it into his pocket. "I think I'll read him my limerick. He might not be familiar with limericks. I wonder if the school board might vote to make limerick writing part of the curriculum."
He said goodbye to the class and disappeared through the door. There was a brief silence. Then Felicia Ann, in her quiet voice, said, "Hith wathn't very good, wath it?"
"Not as good as ours," Barry agreed.
"He just needs more practice," Beanie suggested. "We've been working on poetry for days, but it's brand new for him."