Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

In the Elementary School Choir


Gregory Djanikian

b. 1949 in Alexandria, Egypt, of Armenian descent;
immigrated to Pennsylvania at age 6

Armenian diaspora

Discussion questions: 1. What kind of narrative or story of immigration does the poem tell? What is the tone or arc of its story? (e.g., successful, frustrated, resilient, etc.)

2. What are the challenges of assimilation, and how does the immigrant meet them? What are the institutions of assimilation?

3. How does the poem work between Old World and New World experiences or reconcile "this confusion of places?" [line 3.2]

4. Why the emphasis on unexpected pronunciation? What ironies?

5. How does the figure of Linda Deemer motivate an American Dream / Immigrant narrative? How does Linda Deemer represent or symbolize the American dominant culture?

6. What symbols or appearances of the American dominant culture?

In the Elementary School Choir

I had never seen a cornfield in my life,                                      [1.1]

I had never been to Oklahoma,                                                 [1.2]

But I was singing as loud as anyone,                                        [1.3]

“Oh what a beautiful morning. . . . The corn                             [1.4]

 Is as high as an elephant’s eye,”                                             [1.5]

Though I knew something about elephants I thought,              [1.6]

Coming from the same continent as they did,   [same continent = Egypt as Africa]  [1.7]

 And they being more like camels than anything else.             [1.8]


And when we sang from Meet Me in St. Louis,                      [2.1]

"Clang, clang, clang went the trolley,”                                    [2.2]

I remembered the ride from Ramleh Station                           [2.3]   

In the heart of Alexandria                      [port city in Egypt fdd by Alexander the Great, 331BC]  [2.4]

All the way to Roushdy where my grandmother lived,   [Roshdy neighborhood in Alexandria]    [2.5]

The autos on the roadway vying                                            [2.6]

With mule carts and bicycles,                                                 [2.7]

The Mediterranean half a mile off on the left,         [Mediterranean: see images above]   [2.8]

The air smelling sharply of diesel and salt.                            [2.9]


It was a problem which had dogged me                                  [3.1]

For a few years, this confusion of places,                               [3.2]

And when in 5th grade geography I had pronounced             [3.3]

Des Moines” as though it were a village in France,     [i.e., pronounced as "Day Mwan"]   [3.4]

Mr. Kephart led me to the map on the front wall,                    [3.5]

And so I’d know where I was,                                                  [3.6]

Pressed my forehead squarely against Iowa.                         [3.7]

Des Moines, he’d said. Rhymes with coins.                           [3.8]


Now we were singing “zippidy-doo-dah, zippidy-ay,”              [4.1]

And every song we’d sung had in it                                        [4.2]

Either sun or bluebirds, fair weather                                       [4.3]

Or fancy fringe, O beautiful America!                                     [4.4]

And one tier below me,                                                           [4.5]

There was Linda Deemer with her amber waves                   [4.6]   [dominant culture

And lovely fruited plains,                                                        [4.7]    

And she was part of America too                                           [4.8]

Along with sun and spacious sky                                           [4.9]

Though untouchable, and as distant                                     [4.10]  [dominant culture

As purple mountains of majesty.                                            [4.11]


“This is my country,” we sang,                                              [5.1]

And a few years ago there would have been                        [5.2]

A scent of figs in the air, mangoes,                                        [5.3]

And someone playing the oud along a clear stream.   [oud = N African / Middle Eastern stringed instrument]    [5.4]


But now it was “My country ‘tis of thee”                                [6.1]

And I sang it out with all my heart                                          [6.2]

And now with Linda Deemer in mind.                                    [6.3]

“Land where my fathers died,” I bellowed,                            [6.4]

And it was not too hard to imagine                                        [6.5]

A host of my great uncles and grandfathers                         [6.6]    

Stunned from their graves in the Turkish interior     [Armenia earlier part of Turkey]     [6.7]

And finding themselves suddenly                                         [6.8]

On a rock among maize and poultry    ["rock": i.e., Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts]     [6.9]   [dominant culture

And Squanto shaking their hands.      [Squanto: American Indian associate of Pilgrims]      [6.10]     [minority culture]


How could anyone not think America                                   [7.1] 

Was exotic when it had Massachusetts                               [7.2]

And the long tables of thanksgiving?                                   [7.3]         [food motif of American immigration + Pilgrims]

And how could it not be home                                             [7.4]

If it were the place where love first struck?                         [7.5]


We had finished singing.                                                     [8.1]

The sun was shining through large windows                      [8.2]

On the beatified faces of all            [beatified = blissed-out]      [8.3]

Who had sung well and with feeling.                                  [8.4]

We were ready to file out and march back                         [8.5]

To our room where Mr. Kephart was waiting.                     [8.6]   [dominant culture

Already Linda Deemer had disappeared                            [8.7]

Into the high society of the hallway.                                   [8.8]

One day I was going to tell her something.                        [8.9]

Des Moines, I was saying to myself,                                  [8.10]

Baton Rouge. Terre Haute. Boise.                                             [8.11]

Gregory Djanikian, “In the Elementary School Choir” from Falling Deeply into America. Copyright © 1989 by Gregory Djanikian. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.

Source: Poetry (January 1987).