A TEACHER’S FAREWELL
Row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily,
merrily, life is but a dream. -Children's song
Every so often my father gazes into the distance or looks straight at me, and says, apropos of nothing in particular, "It was all a dream."
I had to grow into these words. The older I got, the more sense they made.
I now look back on the thirty-five I spent at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School as a vast and complicated dream. As I walk through it, I have to brush away the memories, but they cling to me like gossamer threads on a dewy morning. Sometimes the dream has me wending my way through the White Mountains and waking up in a leaky tent with my foot in a cold puddle. That happened more than once. Or I see myself riding on a bus through the steamy Deep South, staring past a black Alabama night, thinking about a school trip plunging into history and about a beloved former student dying of cancer. I see her face reflected on the bus window, and all Alabama vanishes. That happened. I also see myself walking the streets of New York, moving fast, taking my Postwar class on a swirling, whirling tour of the city. Yes, this happened as well. Sometimes the trips will get all mixed up and I'll go down into the subway and get off in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That hasn't really happened yet.
Then there were those special late August nightmares so well-known to teachers: coming into a classroom, greeting the new class, then realizing I had forgotten to prepare the lesson. I've had those many times.
But most importantly, there are the memories of the classes I did teach and did prepare for, though they have long ago lost all chronological sequence. I see a group of faces from '87, then '94, then '73. There no sense to it. All of my classroom memories have been shuffled like a deck.
I see eyes opening like flowers. I see the beautiful faces of young people, earnest, idealistic, funny, intense, searching. I see feelings close to the bone. I see tired faces too, the weight of life already pressing down upon them, the divorces, the college anxieties, the loneliness. But now I hear us singing songs together, songs of workers and farmers and freedom fighters and rock 'n rollers. I hear us becoming one. And I hear the sound of laughter too. Now we are fooling around. An ersatz struggle with switch-blade combs after watching "Rebel Without of Cause." The HUAC simulation. Civil Disobedience in class. Or that outrageous field trip via bus to nowhere. Sitting in the pitch dark, listening to Kerouac or Ginsberg. Me reading Howl aloud three times in one day and feeling the distinct need to be institutionalized. I hear debates, points sharply argued, passionately defended. I hear myself talking about the Wobblies or WWII or the free speech fight at Berkeley or Vietnam, and I know they will only care as long as I do, and so I can never let up, not even a little, even though I am teaching on fumes from a night of shattered sleep.
Lecturing. Note-taking. Wise-crack making. In later years, growling, occasionally howling, and lots of gavel-banging, demanding order out of the chaos that I helped to create. The stories I told, always slightly pertinent, more or less, to what was being taught, yet they would be what the students most remembered. In the end, the whole thing got rolled into one long story. Our electric camp-fire flickering, lowering it from the ceiling in the old building, rolling it out in the new. Sitting around in Thoreau class making animal sounds. The sunrise swim at Walden. Tracking Thoreau to his lair. Reading Leaves of Grass under the beeches in Brookline or on a green field in Vermont, then reciting Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" on the Staten Island Ferry, returning home, a one-poem trip that hopefully taught something more than a poem. Searching for Holden Caulfield and Jack Kerouac in New York, but always one step behind. Then September 11, that forever unforgettable Tuesday. The murals. The moot courtroom. Echoes, the History Magazine. Building Thoreau's cabin. Long afternoons and weekend "work days/nights" in the Forum newspaper office-what serious commitment flourished amidst the most outrageous goofing around! Holocaust Remembrances. Six million zeroes. MLK. Jimmy McIntryre, my student, and the others we lost to AIDS. The Great Gathering. Tsunamis, hurricanes, sundry continuing disasters. Historical anniversaries. Hugging a school building. The endless projects, controversies, protests. Graduation prayers. Mascots. MCAS. Schedules. Apartheid. A.P & G.P.A. Even Phreak dancing. Issues that all seemed transcendent in their importance, which a few even were. Amidst all, my crazy carts, because the whimsical made its demands as well. Oh what fun it was, and the wonderment of it all, how one thing could lead to another.
Refusing to take "No" for an answer, because I too was "afoot with my vision." Always trying to find ways around, tunneling underneath, or figuring out the "long-cut." Getting people ticked off, alas. But wanting to make things happen for my students at all costs, and quick with the somewhat sincere apology: "So sorry, I forgot to read that rule. I definitely will next time!" Relentless. Badger-like. Persistent. What a pain I was, but for a good cause. Well, so I thought.
Feeling responsible to history, to my students, and to Truth, as best as I could discern it. Hoping to inculcate something beyond facts. Addressing hearts in Mississippi as much as minds in Sudbury. And always, there was the worrying, the self-doubt, the sleepless nights from nowhere. And always there were those damn rainy Mondays, and the long march through March. And the grading, the piles of papers replaced by ever new piles. The life of a teacher. Evenings, weekends, vacations, summers thinking how to deepen it all. Finding myself searching libraries, scouring bookstores, prowling graveyards. The family histories. The surprising turns. The poems, good and bad. Always tired. But always loving it all.
And Lincoln-Sudbury. What manner of school was this? No bells. Students sprawled out in hallways. Calling me, "Bill,” "Mr. Schechter," then, finally, just "Schechter." My classrooms and that funky history lounge…the sofas and beanbags…the posters plastered over every blank space on the walls telling their stories of struggle. Free to be creative, but also forced to bear the burden of freedom. Turning off the fluorescents to achieve "total transcendence through incandescence." Sometimes even more: the dark…simply because, like Kerouac, we needed more night.
On my attendance book, the same faded, frayed yellow card for thirty-five years, with a rubbed-out drawing of a tree bent by a storm, and these words by Carl Sandburg: "Across the bitter years and howling winters, the dream of equity will win."
So good-bye, Eugene Victor Debs, Emma Goldman, and WEB DuBois. Good-bye DeWitt Clinton High School and your endless legends of greatness. Goodbye Bronx. Good-bye Robert LaFollette and FDR, and Eleanor Roosevelt too. Farewell Jack Kerouac, Diane DiPrima, Joyce Johnson, Allen Ginsberg. See ya, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. I'll miss you, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Neil Young. Later, Mario Savio, Daniel Berrigan, Viola Liuzzo. To repeat the words of Ken Kesey, “Now go way...come back...go way...come back."
Bill Schechter lives in Brookline and taught history at
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.