Kipling’s “If”: Your Source for Lessons Beyond “If” Clauses

Establishing a real connection between literary texts and students creates a powerful cognitive bond. Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is an ideal example.

A recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, Rudyard Kipling was a product of a classic colonial tale, that of an English boy born in Bombay, India to a life he adored in a place he cherished.

Yet, before his teens, Rudyard was sent “home” to England for schooling, an experience so wrenching that it colored both his life and character, leaving him, many believed, bitter and incapable of deep affection. When he came of age, a mere eighteen, he returned to India and began a writing career that lead to fame and recognition. Words on paper offered an outlet to explore those emotions and admirable characteristics which seemed to elude his own experience.Thus, by no one’s standards was Kipling a perfect fellow or a laudable role model. Nevertheless, he was that tame and changeable creature we see every day, a normal human being.

There were those who appreciated his virtues and those who didn’t. Still, when his brother-in-law tried to take him to court over a disagreement, the noble citizenry of Brattleboro, Vermont, where Kipling had long resided with his wife and children, wrote a letter in support and begged him to return. Too late. Kipling had packed everyone up and moved back to England.There, his fame grew apace, but not without its gainsayers, including literary giants of the day such as Oscar Wilde and Henry James. Despite this, Kipling became the defacto poet laureate of the realm, all the while refusing the honors a grateful monarch was willing to bestow. It is this type of paradox, the self-possessed writer who refuses a knighthood, and the sensitive story-teller who struggled with friendships, that continues to attract readers and biographers to the power and whimsy of his work.Teachers can use Kipling’s poem “If” as a forum for varied activities and learning.

Grammar: The Conjunction “If” and “If”/”Then”

If you study for the test, then you will get a higher score. The first condition needs to be met before the second becomes a possibility, illustrating the classic if — then situation. In the poem, “If”, over a dozen conditions need to be met before a positive result is assured, and in those last lines, the “then” is understood and not written explicitly: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And — -which is more — -you’ll be a Man, my son!”

This is also where I remind students that the word is “then” and not “than”.

Descriptive use of Adjectives: What Kind of a Person are You?

Confucius opined that, “Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Such a person might be described as determined, tenacious, courageous, or, after a recent movie title, Unstoppable. Lower grade levels or lower proficiency students may not have the vocabulary to explore the spectrum of character traits that comprise human potential. Fortunately, there are character trait lists available on-line, with some of them offering an easy-access definition. Since the poem, “If”, is all about character, the tie-in to students’ perceptions of their own character is smooth and, in my experience, welcome. However, in order to maximize the opportunity for self-reflection, I ask students to consider the list of possible characteristics and then perform two tasks:

  1. Develop a list of ten characteristics you currently have and, for each, write a sentence giving evidence that you possess that trait.
  2. Develop a list of ten characteristics you want to develop as you mature, and then write a sentence speculating on who that trait can be achieved.
  3. As an enhancement to these lists, encourage students to find graphics that illustrate, suggest, or symbolize the character trait. (Hard working — an ant carrying a grain of rice.)

Research Role Models: Who Has the Character Described in “If”

If your school has a computer lab, this activity works as an extended project. The question is, does Kipling describe a real person, or is his ideal a fantasy? In pairs or individually, students are to take one or two of the conditions described in the poem and try to find a person in history or one currently living who meets that criteria.

For example, consider the lines, “If you can make one heap of all your winnings, And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss,” These words could easily describe Donald Trump, who after building one fortune came close to losing it all through an inability to repay business loans. Surviving that debacle, he went on to build another fortune to a reported one billion dollar level.

Students can research and present their findings, printing a picture to put a face to the “If” role model or even making a poster.

One of the most critical lessons for students to learn is that someone can do amazing things, produce wondrous art, create, invent, build, and accomplish without being a perfect person. Yet, somewhere inside was a dynamic and insuppressible determination, something that overrode weaknesses and fears. The suggestions above are just a few of the possibilities inherent in the teaching of “If”. Texts such as this can both support academic learning and personal development when an instructor ties it all together.

Writer, ESL instructor, editor, traveler, seasonal ex-pat— my life is both an intentional and serendipitous circumstance. Motto — “Buy the ticket, and go!”

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