Western Reserve Academy
8 April 2016
Is Anybody Listening?
It’s an honor to be here today—just as it always has been. I stood here for the first time in the spring of 1980—that’s thirty-six years ago for those of you who (like me) are mathematically challenged—and I am grateful, once again, to have the privilege of … trembling … on the very spot where so many wonderful speakers have loosed upon you the wolfhounds of their language and ideas. (BTW—remember “wolfhounds”; later, you'll see why.)
I’d like, especially, to thank Ruth Andrews for inviting me today, to Abbey Baker for finalizing everything, to Sherry Chlysta for that generous introduction, to Jill Evans and her English II-ers with whom I just shared a great class, to Headmaster Burner, and, especially, to the Marticke family for sponsoring this annual event, an event that has become—in not all that many years—an important part of the life—the vigorous intellectual life—of Western Reserve Academy.
And it’s nice to see some of you students whom I know from the Open Door Coffee Company. Seeing you down there is one small way I stay in touch with Reserve, a place I’ve loved for a long, long time. As I said last year on this very spot, it gives me hope when I see you studying, caring. But … well … you could offer me some of your pastry? (My mommy taught me it’s polite to share! Just saying …)
Also nice to see some former colleagues—some of whom, once upon a time, were my students here: Mr. Ong (English III), Mrs. Bormann (English I). For years I’ve been blackmailing them both. (Mr. Ong, your April payment is late!)
And hello to Mr. Butensky-Bartlett, whose father, one of my great college friends, served as an usher at my wedding in December 1969. Some students told me they call you BB. Well, BB, I’m DD. Welcome to the Reserve Alphabet Club!
And hello, of course, to my wife, Joyce. She taught here from 1979–1990, the year our son graduated. I’m thrilled they’re here. Thrilled and safe. Why safe? Because … now… someone will have to tell me I did a good job! Oh, the lovely lies that lovers must tell!
I first came here to teach in the fall of 1979. I’d already taught a dozen years at the middle school over in Aurora—a wonderful place, by the way. And then, in 1977, having finished my Ph.D., I thought: I’m gonna be a professor! I applied for a lot of jobs. Got one. At Lake Forest College just up the lake from Chicago, and off I went with my family (our son had just turned six). I was going to begin my career as an Intellectual.
It didn’t work out.
You may find this hard to believe, but I missed middle school kids (I’d taught 7th graders, mostly). Missed their energy, their devotion. Their fundamental insanity. I needed me some more!
So after that single year at Lake Forest College I tried to get back to Aurora, but the middle school had no openings. So I applied a few other places in the area, including Reserve, which hired both my wife and me. As I said, she would stay till 1990 (you can see her picture over in Seymour), and I lasted exactly … two years. In 1989 I got in a little … kerfuffle about my salary, and—in a huff—I abruptly quit, worked some part-time jobs for a year, among them: teaching freshman English at Kent State and clerking down at The Learned Owl, owned at the time by your Headmaster’s parents.
In the fall of 1982 I finally got back to Aurora and taught eighth graders there until my retirement in January 1997. Afterwards, I ran around for a few years, not unlike a released balloon—traveling, reading, writing, feeling almost delirious with the freedom to do what I wanted to.
Then, in April 2001 I was downtown having coffee at the old Saywell’s Drug Store (RIP) with good friend Tom Davis, the now-retired chair of the English Department here. He was sort of whimpering, “We have three openings in English for next year.”
I thought a minute (maybe less than a minute) and said, “How about two?”
And that less-than-a-minute of thought—no, impulse—led to one of the most enjoyable decades of my life—2001–2011. Back at Reserve after a twenty-year absence.
That first year, 2001–02, Keir Marticke was a senior here. Although I did have a few seniors that year in what they used to call “Senior Seminar,” Keir was not among them. But she was a presence on the campus, I can tell you that. I remember her in morning meetings and on campus; I remember thinking that she seemed … at peace with herself—not a common quality in the turbulence of youth. (My own, I’ll confess, was sometimes seismic; my mom, now 96, has still not forgotten—or forgiven—those quakes of mine that shook our house.)
If you look at Keir’s senior page in the 2002 Hardscrabble, you’ll see a line from a 1990s pop song by Ari DiFranco: If you’re born a lion, don’t bother trying to act tame. And then Keir's own words: Thanks to everyone who helped make it happen. She has ten pictures on her page, and eight of them show Keir with some of those who had helped make it happen.
And so—again—I’m honored to speak at an event that bears Keir’s name.
Okay, a couple of stories now. Stories that will illustrate what I’m going to focus on this morning—well, insofar as I can focus on anything at my age!
It was the fall of 1966. Aurora, Ohio. Aurora Middle School. I was in the very first weeks of my teaching career and was feeling very … professional. I was 21! A legal adult! I had a briefcase (a gift from my grateful parents—He's out of the house!)! I had a couple of neckties! I had an apartment! A car! A salary (on the first and the fifteenth of each month I got a fat paycheck—$168.42; I was rolling in it)! My seventh-grade students listened to me! (Well, sort of.)
One late afternoon in early fall I attended a district-wide teachers’ meeting. At one point, I leapt to my feet and uttered some very forgettable words about a topic I’ve also forgotten. But I do remember this: I was urgent; I was earnest, maybe even passionate. I sat down, very pleased with myself, with my first professional remarks. I was gonna change some things!
But immediately thereafter, one of the veteran elementary school teachers, an older woman (probably ten years younger than I am now), bellowed out in her playground voice: “Now, we can all ignore what that boy just said ….”
BOY! Did she say BOY? She went on, but I’ve suppressed the rest of it. Deeply suppressed it. But still—I’ve never forgotten that boy. I huffed and I puffed and wished I could blow her house down.
Fast forward about fifty years. Last Father’s Day (2015) Joyce and I drove down to nearby Green, Ohio, to visit our son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons, Logan and Carson (10 and 6 at the time). It was a warm day, and just before we left their place, we started shooting hoops out in their driveway.
Now—for this part you're going to need some imagination: I’d been a pretty decent basketball player, back in my high school days. FYI—my senior year, 1962, I was on the county all-star team. No need to stand and applaud. It wasn’t all that great an honor. Back then, Portage County was full of small schools with small players with small talent.
Anyway, after a few minutes in our son’s driveway, the Old Rhythm came back, and I was sinking shots with shocking regularity. I was In the Zone! Logan—the ten-year-old, and a very good player—was stunned (he’d never really seen me shoot before), and when he came over to guard me, I whipped a long behind-the-back pass to my son. Chest-high. Perfect.
Logan stopped and sighed, deeply.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
And he said these immortal words: “Old guys aren’t supposed to be any good.” He was smiling, kidding, ironic, I knew. So I laughed.
Okay, what these two little stories show, I hope, is a simple and sometimes painful truth: People don’t really listen to you much when you’re young; they don’t listen to you much when you’re old. So you have a few decades, if you’re lucky, when people will consider you neither an infant/child/adolescent/BOY—or a dotard. And maybe—just maybe—listen a little.
(Okay—pause for an English-teachery word, dotage, one I always put on my English III vocab list: a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness. A dotard is someone in that period.)
Oh, and there’s a similar word like dotage for you—nonage: a period of youth.
So—between our nonage and our dotage—it’s possible that people will actually listen to us. Or not. (No guarantees.) So I guess the next question is When that time arrives, what are you going to say? And how? … We’ll come back to that.
But first, let’s take a quick look at these two extremes—nonage, dotage. When you’re young, it’s often true, isn’t it, that no one’s really listening? Oh, sure, when you’re a wee one, people will ask you if you want some juice—will ask you about kindergarten and your pet—or if you have to go p-p—but here are some questions I’m guessing none of you ever heard directed your way in early childhood: What do you think about our reliance on fossil fuels? Or: In Macbeth, what would be the metaphorical significance of having the three witches remain on stage the whole time? You get the picture …
The same thing happens when you’re much older. Let’s use my dad, for example. Edward Dyer. Now, you’ll need just a little background for this story to sink in as deeply as I want it to. Born in 1913, Dad grew up on an Oregon farm, the second oldest of eleven kids. When he was about your age, his own father died. So during the Great Depression he went to work to help support the family. But he also began college, worked his way through. Eventually earned a bachelor’s, two master’s degrees. Got married in 1939, began his career as a preacher. Then … December 7, 1941 … Pearl Harbor. He joined the Army, became a chaplain, earned a Bronze Star for bravery, served both in the South Pacific and in Europe. Back home after the War, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma, switched his profession to Teacher Education. Then came the Korean War in the early 1950s. Called back to active duty, he was stationed for two years at Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas. When that war ended, he returned to university teaching and ended his career out at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, as an associate dean of the graduate school. He and Mom retired out on the Oregon coast; then health problems felled him, so they moved to Massachusetts, near my two brothers. Dad died in November 1999. I miss him every single day. When I taught here, I wore his academic gown every year at Commencement.
Now, here’s what I’m getting at … when I would go out to Massachusetts to visit him in his assisted-living unit, and, later, in the nursing home, some of his caretakers would talk to him like this: Hi, Ed! How’s your pudding today? That sort of thing. All of his history—his magnificent history (farm, Depression, World War II, graduate degrees)—was either unknown or forgotten or irrelevant. He was a toddler again, in many of his caretakers’ eyes, an attitude expressed not just with words but with tone of voice … how’s your pudding today?
Let’s invite Mr. Shakespeare to comment here … he always seems to have something to say—though we can’t always understand it, can we? Of course, if he were to materialize this afternoon down at Open Door and sit with some of you, he wouldn’t be able to understand a thing you were talking about—or a thing that he saw or experienced. (Except tables, chairs, and the like.) Your clothes, haircuts, smart phones (What are your thumbs doing?); your food, your drinks—even your smells—would baffle him. (And how's that music coming out of the ceiling?) In order for him to communicate with you (which, surely, he wants to do—otherwise, what’s he doing at Open Door—looking for the Bachelorette?), he would have to learn your vocabulary, your culture—would have to catch up on world history since 1616, the year he died. And, likewise, if we want to understand him, we have to grant him the same courtesy. Not always easy, I’ll grant you. But worth it.
Okay … keeping it a hundred. When I read Shakespeare in high school—Julius Caesar my sophomore year, Macbeth my senior—I hated every second of it. I just could not get it, and at that point in my life, I figured if I couldn’t get it—right away—well, it obviously wasn’t worth getting. Take this little speech from Caesar, delivered by Brutus:
BRUTUS: Swear priests and cowards, and men cautelous,
Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls
That welcome wrongs: unto bad causes swear
Such creatures as men doubt. (2.1)
What the—? Reading that in tenth grade, I realized I despised Shakespeare. Always would.
Then things changed. Much of that change is Reserve’s fault. When I came to teach here in 1979, English I (which I taught) included … Julius Caesar (NO!) and English III (which I also taught), Hamlet (IMP0SSIBLE!). So … not wanting to look like a dolt in front of my students, I started to work on Shakespeare—and I’ve never stopped. Joyce and I have seen every single one of his three dozen plays onstage (some of them many times); I’ve visited his birthplace, read all the plays and sonnets and other poems multiple times, memorized lots of his lines, read many biographies …. I’ve stood by his grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
And speaking of that grave … the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is very near—on April 23rd. You may have heard the news that the church recently granted permission to some researchers to conduct a sophisticated radar scan of the grave. And one of their first discoveries: His skull appears to be missing! Purportedly taken by souvenir hunters in the late 1700s. And just last week I read that one of the supposed head-snatchers was named Dyer! I don't know whether to be ashamed or proud?!?
To be continued ...