One evening this week, unable to sleep and thinking of my friend Peter Greer, who was dying, I went downstairs to find a book. I pulled down the two volume collection of Meditations, selected pieces from among those given on Thursday mornings in the church on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy by faculty or by senior students. Peter gave several over the course of his teaching career, and some of those are in these books. Opening the first volume, I saw the dedication page to James Valhouli, an English teacher who died in my first winter at the school. I had not known him, and I was still getting my bearings in that sometimes intimidating and austere place when he fell through the ice on the Exeter River and drowned. It was terrible, and bewildering, but not personal. All I knew of him were a few stories, a black and white photo, and a favorite poem. The vivid details of his death were more real to me than he was, and when I think of him, it’s only as I cross that same river.
The dedication page of the second volume bears the name of another English teacher, Rex McGuinn, who died while out for a run four years after I graduated. I had one class with him, and when I heard of his death, I conjured all the memories I had–an impressive mustache, a soft, Southern lilt, generosity and kindness toward my own poor attempts at writing the required poems for his class. We read Blake, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and once we went to his house, and I was still young enough for this to strike me as strange and unsettling, a vestige of the childish belief that teachers live at school. In any case, I knew him, though we never became friends or kept in touch.
Peter’s name, I’m sure, will appear on some dedication page somewhere, likely many. He was popular, beloved, one, I’m sure, of the most heavily visited faculty members when reunion weekends rolled around. When he was my teacher, he did his best to draw me out of my muteness in class. When we met in conferences over my writing, he encouraged me, prodded me, challenged me. Chronically low on self esteem, I was flattered but suspicious of his praise. In my four years at school, I never really overcame the muteness in class. When the course was over, the depth of my shyness kept me from ever speaking to him or dropping by to visit.
In my senior year, Peter’s wife, Anja, also a teacher at Exeter, died of cancer. In the weeks leading up to her death, I kept a secret vigil. A day student, I commuted to campus each day, and in the evenings, I would take a detour to drive past their big house halfway between the school and home. There was nothing to it but driving by, slowing just slightly, and looking to see which windows were lighted. I had never been inside, and I didn’t know the layout of the rooms, but I came to believe that one upstairs window, which was always illuminated, must have been where she was. I drove past every night, and thought of them in there. I told no one about this habit.
After Anja died, I wrote Peter a note. Then, I could not conceive of calling him anything but Mr. Greer, and so I addressed it that way. I drew a little sketch of a Northern Redbud tree, painstakingly coloring hundreds of the tiny pink buds, and included a few short, self-conscious lines expressing the inadequacy of my words. Less than a week later, he was back on campus, and all of us, awkward teenagers anyway, suffered the additional faltering awkwardness of trying to speak with a man whose wife had just died. Mercifully, I have no memory of what I said. But I have kept a journal since I was eight years old, and in an entry from April 27, 1998, I wrote, “I was sitting in the hall by the English classrooms when Mr. Greer came by. I saw the four, neat white teeth of his smile and he crouched in front of me and said, ‘I know I’ve already told you this, but that note was really wonderful. I just keep showing it to everyone. You said in it ‘I don’t expect that my little words would make a difference,’ but I want you to know, it did make a great deal of difference,’ and he laid his palm briefly on my knee.”
My last month and a half at Exeter were consumed by boyfriend musings and trysts, tormented decisions about college, and feckless participation in track meets. I circled around Peter, watching him, noting how he seemed, what he said, surreptitiously watching him clean out Anja’s classroom, walking down the hallway with a potted fern in each hand. I recorded my dreams in my journal too. In many, I was being chased. In one, I was crossing a river on a bridge of rotted planks, each one inscribed with a name and a death date. After my graduation, Peter and I settled into a semi-regular exchange of notes and emails. He prodded me to call him Peter, I resisted, and we settled on “Peter Mr. Greer” or PMG, for short. The aimless summer between graduation and when I went off to college, I rode my bike past his house often. Unmoored in my freshman year at UMass, his notes held me to my own center. I found my place gradually, and still we kept in touch, and I finally was able to call him just plain Peter. He came to our wedding. He wrote congratulations on my first child, my second. He made a good marriage; he got his diagnosis. He and Dale lived snugly in their fine little house with their fine little garden. They traveled; they stayed home. Looking through our notes now, I marvel at their frankness. He had once said he and I had a certain diffidence in common. It seemed we were able to write each other so freely because of, not in spite of it. Both of us were capable of being lively, gregarious in conversation, yet both of us often felt an urge to travel through a crowd with our heads down, unnoticed, even by friends.
In my last note to him, I wrote in thanks. Over the years of our friendship and our correspondence, he had shown me how to be a teacher, a friend, a bird watcher, a reader, how to be contentedly married. While I was a student at Exeter, I gradually came into my gifts, helped by several marvelous teachers. David Weber, Ralph Sneeden, Harvey Knowles–with their encouragement, I gained in confidence, and began to think of myself, hesitantly, shyly, as a writer. But my skill in writing remained, to me, abstract and with a shallow purpose, like a parlor trick I could trot out to distract or dazzle. Writing to Peter, and being written to by him, was my first education in what my writing could do for someone. I looked at the effect my words had wrought on a friend and my own understanding of my gift was changed utterly. Exeter taught me to write for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it, the keenness of expression, revising for meaning and expression and tone. All of that is technique, and without technique, the meaning will be muddy, or lost entirely. But Peter taught me about the meaning itself.
After a shaky fall of feeling lost in the crowds at a big state school, I was beginning to regain my footing. In the winter of my first year at UMass, I made this entry on the last page of my journal,
“I emailed Mr. Greer tonight, nervously and carefully composing a two paragraph note. He inhabits such a strange place in my heart, at some great depth there. I miss him, and I worry about him, but I don’t know how to tell him any of it. He spoke to that same thing when he wrote to me, saying he knows what I mean; the current underneath my words is what I send him, and he hears it, and I gratefully continue writing.”