I had wondered, when I first saw Molly Rich's drama students perform in Hickory, why they were wearing T-shirts with Tractor Shed Theatre across the front. Perhaps a nod to the rural nature of that part of North Carolina?
No, their classroom/theatre is a converted tractor shed behind the high school. Here are Molly's driving instructions to the judges of the district Poetry Out Loud competition:
"You will turn in left and ride past the front of the school - go through the gate and around a sharp curve into a student parking lot. Go towards the greenhouse and the red barn-looking storage unit. Go through the wee area at the greenhouse and drive up and you will see the tractor shed and my tan/goldish van. Stars are on the ground and the front door is black and stenciled in white tractor shed theatre."
Tiny, as theatres go. Warm and full of life, as classrooms go.
9 of her students who had won at the school level were competing for the chance to go to the state competition. Each chose 2 poems, one of them pre-20th century, from the list of 150 poems provided by this National Endowment for the Arts program.
First up was Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Ai-yi-yi, I thought. Why would this wisp of a girl choose something so problematic? So easy to slide into that sing-songy rhythm that we all know, so difficult to make distinctive the repetitive last line that ends each verse. She avoided both pitfalls and when she got to the last verse, "In the beauty of the lilies" (a silly, sentimental line), she created a hush in the room.
We heard "Dover Beach," we heard Dunbar and Emerson. We heard a stunning contemporary poem recited by a wrestler and football player with a magnificent voice—one of those difficult poems in which the individual lines made no logical sense, yet he, and therefore we, understood its meaning at a deep level.
Two great, thoughtful performances, but the winner was even better.
All of this richness in a tractor shed behind a small school in the hills.
How far into the hills? After the competition, Julie Kolischak, one of the other judges, and I headed for what Siri said was the nearest restaurant, the Roadside Diner. When we asked to use the restroom, we were directed to another building across the parking lot. Yes, on the corner of that darkened building was a hand-lettered "Restroom" sign. The door to the accommodation was made of unframed boards nailed together, so a bit of a struggle to open and close it. But, hey, I grew up using an outhouse until I was in my teens.