kings and queens of England, memorization, reflections, school

My Dear Kings and Queens…

Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste
Harry, Dick, John, Harry III
1, 2, 3 Neds, Richard II
Henry 4,5,6 then who?
Edward 4,5 Dick the bad
Harry’s Twain, then Ned the Lad
Mary, Bessie, James the Vain
Charlie, Charlie, James again
William and Mary, Anne Gloria
Four Georges, William, then Victoria
Ned, George, Ned, George
Now it’s seen, a second Bessie is the Queen!

What, you might say, is all of this?

Why, it’s the ever-so-important chronological list of the kings and queens of England.

And I do, indeed, know it by heart.

Recently, I finished a charming book by Philippa Gregory called The Queen’s Fool. It was a beautiful look at Queen Mary’s reign and it brought the entire monarchy to life.

Of course, while reading the book, I had to recite my kings and queens in order many, many times to think about when Mary’s reign occurred, who came next, who came before her, etc.

And it got me thinking about school recitations and about the history of this history list.

It was 9th grade history class with Mr. Combs, my charming British teacher. On a Friday, he assigned the kings and queens of England to us, and gave us the task of reciting them all by the following week.

My jaw dropped. I was never good at memorizing anything, and I was always the first one to panic about a seemingly-overwhelming assignment.

Mr. Combs explained that we should learn the kings and queens because…well…because.

He did offer one fun anecdote. One student, he claimed, left the private school where we were learning and went to a public school. Somehow it came up that she knew this parlor trick, and she bet the teacher an instant A in the class if she recited them all on the spot. Needless to say, as legend had it, she got the A.

Um, and therefore we should all learn this collection of nonsense? What can I say. That was the rationale.

And so, I headed into the weekend that I still vividly remember to this day. I went to Big Bear Lake with my friend Alexis, and before I could say “goodnight” on Friday night, she appeared to have memorized the whole thing.


And I, on the other hand, spent the entire – ENTIRE – weekend saying, “Willy, Willy, Harry who?” Oh shoot, “Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste, 1, 2 3 somebodies…

And on and on. It took me so bloody long to remember that list.

When it was time to recite it for Mr. Combs, I started to stutter and I couldn’t remember it at all. We had two tries, and two tries only. A perfect recitation received an A. Anything else received…who wanted to find out?

On the second try, I managed to make my way through it all and I was so proud of myself and relieved. Little did I know that I would recite it thousands of times through the years and feel the urge to do so anytime that anyone mentioned something about that part of the world.

As a teacher myself, I actually made my students memorize pieces from The Odyssey. I would recount Mr. Combs’ story and my own experience, and promise them that it was fun to memorize something and that it challenged a part of the brain. Rather than just having them do rote memorization, however, I had my students act out scenes from The Odyssey with their own interpretations, but with the original words. It was one of my finer teaching moments every year.

At one point, I realized that Mr. Combs, as a fellow teacher, would certainly enjoy hearing about my experiences. What teacher doesn’t want to know about an old student who still remembers him, and that has closely emulated his teaching style?

So, I wrote to Mr. Combs at Westlake. In the letter, I wrote down the entire list and I asked him, playfully, what we would do when Elizabeth II gives up her reign.

He wrote back an appreciative letter, but he did not answer my question.

I do wonder, sometimes, if there are hundreds of old Churchill students reciting passages of The Odyssey at random times during their lives.

Perhaps a few are cursing me.

Perhaps a few appreciate the exercise.

And perhaps a few have taken the lessons learned and incorporated them into their own lives, or into their own teaching styles.

One never knows.

But I promise to continue reciting the Willy, Willy, Harry Ste’s for as long as I can remember it.

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