Calculating a Limerick

1896 Bichet schoolhouse ~ Marion County, Kansas

Just for fun, I recently asked several people if they knew the meaning of the phrase, “the three Rs.” Most gave me blank looks. A few remembered that it refers to “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic,'” and one sang the old song about school days perfectly. I couldn’t have sung the verses, but the chorus has stayed with me for decades, evoking not only my own early classrooms, but also the wonderful one-room schoolhouses still standing across the country:

School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
‘Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick’ry stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your bashful barefoot beau,
And you wrote on my slate,
‘I love you, Joe,’
When we were a couple of kids.

Given that the song was written in 1907, the words of the second stanza seem remarkably modern:

‘Member the hill, Nellie Darling,
And the oak tree that grew on its brow?
They’ve built forty stories
Upon that old hill,
And the oak tree’s an old chestnut now.
‘Member the meadows so green, dear,
So fragrant with clover and maize,
Into new city lots
And apartment block plots,
They’ve torn them all up since those days.

Unfortunately, skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic have degraded over the years as surely as that old oak. School buildings may be fancier now, but I’d willingly bet that graduates of the Bichet schoolhouse shown above could hold their own against many of today’s students, particularly when it comes to the basics.

I will admit that, during my own primary school years, I loved reading and ‘riting, but ‘rithmetic was the bane of my existence. Eventually I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but by that time I was old enough to be faced with accursed, anxiety-producing word problems. For example:

Devon is going to make 3 shelves for her father. He has a piece of lumber 12 feet long. She wants the top shelf to be half a foot shorter than the middle shelf, and the bottom shelf to be half a foot shorter than twice the length of the top shelf. How long will each shelf be if she uses the entire 12 feet of wood?

Faced with something like that, I’d wonder why Devon didn’t just go to the store and buy some shelves, saving herself the aggravation of all that calculating.

In truth, I wasn’t being practical. I was exhibiting behavior typical of what’s come to be called a math-phobic: stymied as much by my conviction that I couldn’t ‘do math’ as I was by the equations themselves.

There always have been  teachers able to recognize and cope with the condition, even though I wasn’t lucky enough to have one during my school years. When I read about Michael Gallin, a high school math teacher in the Bronx, I envied his students, and wondered how differently my relationship to math might have evolved had I been in his classroom.

In an especially interesting article about his approach published in the Washington Post he say of his students, “They are afraid of being wrong, and that fear of being wrong cripples them.”

I might have used ‘paralyzes’ rather than ‘cripples,’ but the dynamic he describes is familiar. Eventually, it was sailing that overcame my paralysis. Forced by my sailing instructor to learn navigation as well as knot-tying and engine-bleeding, the revelations came swiftly. That speed-time-distance formula? Algebra. Triangulation as a means of determining position? Geometry. It all was so useful, and best of all, it was understandable.

In time, thanks to math-savvy friends who actually enjoy playing with numbers, I began to understand that math not only could be useful, it could be fun. When one of them passed on a little gem of a puzzle to me recently, my first amazement was that I could do the mathematical calculations and arrive at the answer.

The twist, of course, was that the formula also could be expressed in the form of a limerick. For once, figuring out the words was harder than doing the math. Once I was given a clue — read the first three numbers not as numerals, but as descriptions of ‘things’ — it got easier, and the limerick began to emerge.

If you’re inclined to give it a try, I’ll give you a couple of clues. The limerick begins with “A dozen” and ends with the phrase “and not a bit more.” Once you click on the solution, it’s unbelievably obvious, even though it takes some creativity to get there. Have fun!



Click here for the solution


Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Pelicans

Whether Eleanor Johnson met a pelican during the course of her lifetime, I can’t say. What is certain is that, had a pelican plummeted into our 5th grade classroom to perch atop her desk, Miss Johnson’s first words would have been, “Children! Quick! Take your pencils! Let’s write a poem about our unexpected visitor!”

Miss Johnson guided us capably enough through arithmetic and social studies lessons, but her first love was poetry. Obsessed with verse, she clearly intended that we should be equally obsessed. No doubt she would have preferred pouring poetry into our heads with a funnel but, lacking direct physical access to distracted childhood brains, she did the next best thing: nagging, cajoling, insisting, and assigning until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her enthusiasm. Continue reading

The Pleasures of Pelecanus Poeticus

Whether Eleanor Johnson had the pleasure of meeting a pelican during the course of her lifetime, I can’t say. What I know is that, had a pelican plummeted into our 5th grade classroom and perched atop her desk, the first words out of Miss Johnson’s mouth would have been, “Children! Quick! Get out your pencils! Let’s write a poem about our unexpected visitor!”

One of my favorite teachers, Miss Johnson guided us capably enough through lessons in arithmetic and social studies, but her first love was poetry. Obsessed with verse, she clearly hoped to inculcate that same obsession in her little charges.  She would have poured poetry into our heads with a funnel if she’d been able, but lacking direct physical  access to our distracted childhood brains, she did the next best thing – nagging, cajoling, insisting and assigning until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her enthusiasm.

We read biographies of poets, memorized stanzas and recited sonnets in front of the class until until we thought we were going to throw up from the anxiety of it all. When we were assigned our first written theme, an unhappy exercise meant to answer the question What is poetry? groans of disapproval and resistance echoed down the halls. I remember sighing as I examined the new burden she’d imposed.  The essay was to be no less than two hundred words!  My distress was eased only slightly by knowing I already had one answer to Miss Johnson’s question, an answer I suspected she might approve.  Poetry, to my way of thinking, was fun. Continue reading

Pelican Briefs

Impassioned by her love of language, Eleanor Johnson would have poured poetry and literature into our heads with a funnel if she’d been able.  Lacking direct access to our distracted childhood brains, my fifth-grade teacher did the next best thing.  She nagged, cajoled, insisted and assigned until we nearly collapsed under the weight of her incessant demands that we pay attention to words.

It was Miss Johnson who insisted we memorize and recite poetry until we thought we were going to throw up.  It was Miss Johnson who assigned the class its first important written theme, an unhappy exercise entitled, What is poetry?   Poetry?  The very thought elicited groans of disapproval and resistance, and I remember sighing as I examined the new burden she’d imposed.  The essay was to be no less than two hundred words!  My distress was eased only by the fact that I knew an answer and suspected it was an answer Miss Johnson might approve.  Poetry, to my way of thinking, was fun.

I learned my first poem at my grandparents’ table.   I still roll it out from time to time, and always laugh even if no one else seems inclined.

 “Shake and shake the ketchup bottle.
 First a little, then a lot’ll.”

It has rhythm, it has rhyme, and it made me giggle every time mom made a meatloaf for dinner and put the bottle on the table.  Sometimes, when meatloaf wasn’t on the menu, I’d beg for ketchup for my scrambled eggs,  french fries or chicken leg, just to have an excuse to recite my “verse”.   Every time, my Dad would look at me over his glasses and say, “That’s not only verse, it’s the verst”.  And I’d giggle again.

It wasn’t long before I met the mighty pelican, and memorized my version of his poem:

Behold the mighty pelican.
His beak holds more than his belican.
I don’t know how the helican,
but then, he is the pelican.

Part of the giggle of the pelican poem was getting to say “helican” without being swatted by whichever adult was lurking around. Later I began to collect variants of the ditty, originally penned in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt (1879-1972), an editor for Nashville’s morning paper, The Tennessean.  Ogden Nash often gets the credit for the paean to the wondrous bird, but it’s apparently Merritt who deserves it.  President of the American Press Humorists Association, he was witty and word-perfect.  His original pelican poem was inspired by a post card sent  him by a reader who’d been visiting Florida.

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.

His poem was my introduction to limericks, and I loved them.  Often they popped into my mind without any effort at all.  Even today, I’ll sometimes drop a comment into someone’s blog in limerick form, as I did when oh! said she was going to be busy with real-world obligations and wouldn’t be tending her blog for a bit:

There once was a writer named oh
with too many places to go.
She came and she went
while her bloggie friends lent
her permission to be a no-show.

Unfortunately, poetry hasn’t been all fun and games.  There came a day when I fell into the hands of those who took poetry Seriously, and whose view of poets was less cheerful than my own.  By the time I emerged from college, I’d been fairly well convinced poets either were suicidal or anti-social.  Even worse, I’d learned to analyze the life out of any poem that came my way, often under the tutelage of instructors whose mantra was, “But what does it MEAN?” 

By their standards, the words of a poem were one thing and the meaning quite another.  Our job was to pick poetry apart in search of meaning as though we were back in biology lab.  Poems became  metaphorical equivalents to the one-pound frogs lying scattered about our dissecting tables.  Like their skin, tissue and bones, our piles of simile, strips of metaphor and occasional onomatopoeiaic bits were vaguely interesting but entirely dead.

While I’m certain the various poetry associations and organizations would prefer to avoid having their efforts reduced to the chipper slogan, “Let’s Make Poetry Fun!”,  it’s a fact that wordplay is fun, perfectly suited to this season of road trips, bike excursions, beach lolling and mojitos.  Of course there’s a time to take poetry seriously, and to write serious poetry.  This year’s relatively “artsy” Poetry Month poster quoted T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock and asked the entirely serious question: “Do I dare disturb the universe?”.   The implied answer was “Yes” – because the universe needs disturbing from time to time, because speaking the right word at the right time can send rippling effects throughout the universe and because poets, above all, are masters of the word.

Unfortunately, promoting poetry by quoting T.S. Eliot can reinforce the common misconception that poetry is for a literary or intellectual elite.  Quite the opposite is true. Poetry isn’t drab or irrelevant, and it’s meant to be enjoyed, both the writing and the reading of it.  Truth be told, the impulse toward poetry can pop up anywhere, as Merritt’s famous pelican-postcard-inspired bit of doggerel shows.  Was his poem “important”?  Hardly. Has anyone ever analyzed it for deeper meaning? Probably not.  But it’s fun and memorable, quotable and perfectly suited to be a jumping-off point for a bit of summer afternoon verbal serve and volley.


Working and living around Seabrook, Texas, it’s impossible not to think of Merritt and his Mighty Pelican on a regular basis.  The whimsical creatures on this page are part of Seabrook’s Pelican Path Project, a collection of non-migratory birds that bring smiles to tourists and residents alike.  Some were battered by Hurricane Ike and many had to be moved or taken in for restoration.  Now, one by one, they’re beginning to re-emerge, tucked into the nooks and crannies of the little town like snippets of verse dropped by an inattentive muse.

Spying one for the first time, children are entranced.  Suddenly discovering a “new one”, adults are delighted.  People talk to them, and tourists have their photos taken with them.  I saw a fellow rub one’s beak as though he were rubbing the belly of of the Buddha for good luck, and a bride and groom once had a replica on top of their wedding cake.   Every time I see one I smile, astonished and delighted by their variety and by the creative vision that began populating the town with such elegant birds.  Every now and then, I wish Dixon Lanier Merritt could see them.  I can only imagine what he’d think.

I suppose as these pelicans go
some people would say, “Just for show”.
But they’re handsome and fun
as they bask in their sun
and inspire new verses to flow…


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