Monday, August 31, 2009

School Anniversary Poetry Readings



On Sunday, August 16, 2009, Bob Demaree presented a program of poetry as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of Wolfeboro: The Summer Boarding School, in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Ed Cooper, Head of School, presided.

Thank you, Ed. I’m honored to be part of this occasion. As I looked around at the reception yesterday, I thought I might be among the older alumni returning for the weekend, but would not win the prize for distance traveled. For 54 years we have been your next-door neighbors. This morning I want to share some pieces that address the things you and I have in common, the experience of the independent school world, and Rust Pond. You will recognize the setting.



Next to our cottage is a tutoring camp;
My father taught there summers ago.
I walk along the lane behind the tents
They use for classrooms
And listen to the commingled voices
Of young teachers and their kids.
Much of it is new and strange, of course,
But some I recognize:
Third person plural, active voice…
What Gatsby really means…
And I am carried back to
Forty years in schools:
A mug of hot coffee
To put my hand around on cool mornings,
A smile for the 14-year-old,
Embarrassed at his mistake,
Wanting to try again.


I came upon my father’s grade book today,
On the cottage shelf
Where we put it when he died,
Twenty years ago now.
I wish that he’d retired
While his memories were all good ones.
I see him in his classroom by the pond,
Leaning forward, wanting to tell a boy or two,
Sullen, not unkind, needing credits,
About the Generation of ’98,
But struggling with the preterite, I think.
Then the meaning comes to me:
A tutor is someone who keeps you safe.

The next piece arises from this place, and from the fact that I spent 42 years working with students in grades 9-12. And I should say here that poetry is neither journalism nor fiction but is closer to fiction.


On our pond is a coed summer camp.
In the first week you see the boys
Walking on the lane:
The blond, handsome ones,
Already grouped, laughing,
Casual, expensive clothes,
Punching each other on the arm;
Others, by twos and threes,
Make tentative overtures, risk friendship;
A few alone, head down, thinking of home.
The girls keep to themselves.
It is quiet these first days;
By midseason, noisy with adolescent camaraderie.
In the last weeks you see them on the pond
In pairs, boys and girls,
Kayaking along the rocky shore.


The graveyard came with the property,
The realtor had told my dad;
So each summer I take some time
To clear out the corner of our land
Where the Peavey family lies.
New Hampshire law requires this of me,
Or so my father thought,
But I believe I would do it anyway:
The Peaveys were tenants for the folk
Who farmed these acres beside the pond
Before forest reclaimed field
And realtors drew maps of shorefront lots.
Down the lane a proper granite wall
Protects the owners’ graves,
And people take snapshots
Of scrubbed headstones in ordered rows.
The Peaveys have not fared so well:
With ungloved hands
I uproot weed and bramble
And the beginnings of little trees.
Like my father before me
I do not have the proper tools
Or know the right names for things.
I leave in place the fragile ferns
And the ground cover
My mother called clintonia.
The headstones tilt at different angles
Like dancers in a tableau turned askew--
Our girls took rubbings of them
Years ago, for their grandparents’ pleasure:
One, in a far corner, almost hidden,
All but on the ground,
Marked only with initials:
Perhaps a child taken before his time
Or a hired man
Seeking the New Hampshire home
Of which Frost spoke.

Requiescatis, Peaveys,
And rest well, too,
Parents and grandparents,
Whose headstones are far from here
But whose presence fills these woods
And the furniture we have not moved.
May your sleep be like the nap one takes
On the porch, some gentle July afternoon
With its fine, light breeze off the pond,
After a swim in those pristine waters
Which only a glacier could have made.

The formation you see across the pond was once called Mt. Chase, but most of us know it as Longstack.


The only place it is a mountain is from our dock.
Driving around, I have seen it from other angles,
No more than undulations
In the New Hampshire landscape.
But across the pond it rises
Gently, right to left,
And runs asymmetrically along a ridge
Perhaps a mile,
Sloping at last toward the big lake.
It is the remembered view
We carry home at the end of summer.
In my binoculars I can see
New A-frames in the high meadow
On the near slope.
I do not begrudge them their gated driveway,
Their view of the pond,
That they have taken up residence
In our field of vision,
Their binoculars trained, I suppose, on us.

My father taught at The Hill School in Pennsylvania from 1944 to 1969 and started coming to Wolfeboro in 1947. So he is of a line that began with George Robins and continues today with Bob Parker. I guess the reason I’ve always liked “On Golden Pond” is because it’s about academics from Pennsylvania who loved coming to New England in the summer.


The school motto, in gothic letters,
On the altar, dark, angular,
The patina of old wood against exposed brick:
Boarding school boys sing a requiem
For a headmaster they had not known.
My father taught here then, years ago,
And I, maladapted son and student to them both,
Have come a long journey of memory and regret,
Representing one shade to another.
In the worn walnut pew
I hear the eulogists recall their mentor:
Does it matter that my remembrance is not the same?
The choir recesses against a January sky:
There I am, the sullen boy behind the crucifer.

Outside the oak-beamed dining hall
Odors and textures jump across time:
Cheese soufflé cooking on Saturday morning,
Wet wool drying in steam heat.
Over coffee I speak to classmates after forty years
But do not stay for lunch,
Pleasantries left like cream not stirred.
Sand and soot grate upon the ice beneath my shoes
Past mounds of graying snow
In the visitors’ parking lot.

The next several pieces deal with the experience of working in schools.


New in town, she waits for the school bus
At the edge of the crowd,
And thinks of a place where
Others would stare instead at her,
Envious of friendship’s familiarity,
Careless, insolent.

She sees another girl, solitary, head down,
Her skirt and blouse a truce
Negotiated of her mother’s expectations and her own.
Should she speak, should she risk suggesting lunch?

The bus approaches.
She clutches her fragile shield
Against the long moments of being fourteen:
New book bag, new organizer,
Velcro snap for her new laptop.


At the school where he taught
The yearbook dedication was always a surprise.
At the assembly that year
They gave it to the track coach:
Very fitting, he thought, much deserved.
He had worn a nice jacket, though.

The next piece will ring a bell with day school teachers more than with your boarding school colleagues. I suppose I should have some misgivings about this piece, but I don’t. So I’ll just say this is probably not about anyone you know….


Tennis skirts taut,
Private school parents
Preen in parking lots,
Over the low rumble of
Escalades idling, double parked:
The French teacher is nice, they think, but hard;
The tuition high, the headmaster glib,
And the Danish at the coffee just now
Maybe a little stale.


Forty years ago I watched a friend retire:
Box upon box of brittle notes,
Purple ditto masters, faded and smeared,
Slowly down the paneled English hall,
Keats’ bust staring.
Yesterday I deleted computer files,
Obscure lore with links to the arcane.
Are you sure, the machine asked.
Perhaps was not an option.

I meant to include various aspects of school work. The next piece dates from my days as a head of school in Louisiana, and it deals with maintenance.


He worked for the firm
That cleans our building.
The night before he died
We walked the school together.
With amiable displeasure
I had shown him things,
Unstripped wax,
Unwiped blinds and louvers,
And we lamented
(Him an old school man, too)
How kids are these days,
Trouble getting good help.
Someone else must make some sense
Of the notes he took that night.
The company doesn’t know
Who they’ll send us now.
See, there on top of the lockers,
In the dust caught in the afternoon’s late light,
Furrows plowed by the
Fingers of a hand which
Something tells me
Must have been his.

I do not often write about public events, and when I do, it is because I cannot not write. The horrific events of April 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia, gave rise to this piece, which I see is, of course, about teaching:


Film loops roll all day:
College kids, police running,
Another cable news orgy of violence
That Dylan Thomas might refuse to mourn:
Young dancers who will not see the stage,
Second Amendment rights upheld.
Politicians, journalists, poets
Insinuate themselves upon the grief of others.
What can be remembered that might help?
Two things: that college cheer,
Incongruous at first,
A cry of pain and hope;
And the old professor,
The Holocaust survivor,
Rising bravely to protect his students.
I picture him moving toward the door,
I’ve seen worse than this.

Epilogue: Haiku

Across the campus,
Cell phones in lifeless trousers
Ringing, still ringing.

I imagine several of you have had the privilege of having your own children in your schools. In our family for several years we set out, all four of us, for the same school. I see your sons and daughters riding their bicycles and tricycles on the lane, and I hope that, if not now, then surely later, they will come to treasure, as I have, the experience of growing up in the world of the independent school, and of summers on Rust Pond. I want to close this morning with a piece that touches on some of this. It is part of the title piece of my book, Fathers and Teachers; the person addressed directly is the American poet Howard Nemerov.

MAY 30, 1984

The gym is empty now--
Graduation was last night.
The polished floor is lightly scuffed
By the shoes of girls in long white dresses:
The rented chairs are stacked against the wall,
And beside them yesterday’s magnolias and
My orange extension cord
And the discarded programs,
Where you said they’d be.

Last night I shared my daughter’s joy
With the calmness of a minister at a wedding,
Or a funeral:
A school man on a working day.

But something has come to me today,
Walking the halls,
Picking up after graduation:
Here is where she stood last night to give her speech,
And here is where she sat laying out the newspaper,
And here her desk for calculus or English,
Or where she tried out for cheerleader:
And here are all the places of the part of her life
We thought was ours
But is no more.

An empty school, the day after graduation,
In the cool and eerie light of the sun’s eclipse--
They say this will not happen again
For thirty years or so:
I wonder if I shall see it.
The men are moving the rented organ now,
And I suppose that if I leave the flowers where they are today
They will still be there in September,
Dried, brittle, incongruous against the opening of school.

It has dawned on me thorough this day’s strange, dream-like light
That I have indeed lived to see her coming forth:
My tears belong to ritual,
As you said they would.

It has dawned on me through this day’s strange, dream-like light
That Virginia doesn’t go to school here anymore.
The men carrying away the rented chairs
Disrupt the practice of the cheerleaders:
My younger daughter squints in the now-bright sun of noontime
And plans with friends for other days.

Thank you for coming this morning. I’ve enjoyed being with you.


On April 24, 2010, Greensboro Day School in Greensboro, N.C., celebrated its 40th anniversary. Bob Demaree, who served there for 17 years as Upper School Director and Director of Financial Aid, College Guidance and Publications, was asked to write and read for the occasion the poem below:


Entering the story
About a third of the way through,
I tried to tell of its unfolding.
We recall two leaders:
One whose sense of historic irony
Turned to confidence a hopeful, uneasy past;
One whose warm, baritone arias
Dreamed beyond what the founders dreamt.
Another has come to fulfill those visions,
A school in the fullness of time.
I think of a tournament in Asheville,
Nineteen eighty-seven,
A loss, a snowfall, a hope that would be redeemed,
The cheerleaders, my daughter among them,
Singing “Lean on Me”:
I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on;
I’m right up the road,
I’ll share your load,
If you’ll just
Call me.