HAVERHILL — Some things never change, even two centuries later.
With the temperature nearing 70 on a sun-splashed spring day, students from Bradford Elementary School, which is just over a decade old, celebrated something that happened almost 200 years ago.
Yesterday morning the students descended on the historic Walnut Cemetery and remembered schoolboy emotions that ran through the heart of Haverhill's favorite son, John Greenleaf Whittier, when he was around their age.
It has become a tradition in Haverhill with local students gathering around the gravestone of Lydia Ayer to recite a poem by Whittier recalling his childhood sweetheart and a moment following a school spelling bee when she confesses, "I'm sorry that I spelt the word: I hate to go above you, because — the brown eyes lower fell — because, you see, I love you!"
The traditional event usually takes place on Valentine's Day, but had to be postponed to yesterday because it snowed around the holiday.
Bradford fifth-graders Julia King and Benjamin Kibit dressed as Ayer and Whittier while reciting the poem along with more than 40 of their classmates.
"It's really nice that he wrote a poem about her," Julia said.
Several members of the Whittier Club stood on the periphery of the group of students, intently listening to them recite a poem that 19th century American poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to as "the most beautiful school-boy poem in the English language."
"We try to arrange for this recital yearly but it doesn't always happen," said Elinor Curtin-Cameron, president of the Whittier Club. "It's important to convey Whittier's legacy to the next generation and make children aware of his contributions as a poet and abolitionist."
Parent Amy Mooradian was there to see her son Sam Mooradian take part in the event.
"The kids worked really hard at preparing for this day," she said.
Local historians say Whittier and Ayer attended the same school in their youth. It was on what is now Whittier Road. A stone marker denotes where the school stood.
Excerpt from Whittier's poem "In School Days"
He saw her lift her eyes; he felt
The soft hand's light caressing,
And heard the tremble of her voice,
As if a fault confessing.
"I'm sorry that I spelt the word:
I hate to go above you,
Because,"—-the brown eyes lower fell,—-
"Because, you see, I love you!"