Posts Tagged ‘Exeter’

Of memory and manure

The day before the memorial service for my friend Peter, I took the warm afternoon to clean out my chicken coop. I was partway looking forward to, and partway dreading the service, and the chore seemed the perfect thing to occupy at least the body, if not the mind. The service would, I hoped, help put an end to the usual magical thinking that follows a death. There are things upon things I think to point out to Peter the next time we talk, before I remember there won’t be one. Thinking of attending the service at the prep school where he was my teacher, I realized I expected to see him there, at the podium, speaking in his own memory. It seems the only thing more powerful than his absence is his presence.

The sensation is intensified with the spring. I always think of Peter most in these transition seasons, for he loved the shifts. The migrant birds arriving, the migrant birds departing, the putting away the garden hoses and tools in November, and the taking out of the tools in April, the furlings and the unfurlings both. When I see a gray-haired man in a khaki vest standing at the edge of a field, binoculars raised, spotting woodcocks in early spring, it takes a nearly physical effort to remember that it can’t be him.

IMG_5465In the coop, I was digging out the long winter’s layers of compressed manure, stirring up a smell of turned cider and fetid straw. Everything in the dim shed is coated in gray brown chicken dust, and the light from outside comes dimly through the caked windows. Shin deep in shit, I heard the clear peal of a wind chime. Brushed by the body of an unseen hen on her way to make a secret nest I might eventually find full of eggs weeks from now, the chime sounded pure as the day Peter gave it to us as a wedding gift more than ten years ago. The sound faded, and I returned to my chore.

At the service today, the Academy’s Reverend Thompson spoke of how he and Peter, an atheist, had still managed to arrive at some common ground in an ancient etymology of religion as ligating, binding together. We were gathered in the school’s non-denominational church to praise and remember Peter, but not to pray, per his own, unenforceable request. Still, remember seems a better term anyway. Peter is the one who first taught me to see the genuine meaning of the word: to reassemble, to put back together.

After I’d cleaned the coop and filled it again with fresh pine shavings, I took down the wind chime and looked it over. Its wood is dull and starting to split, and the strings are moldering. They’ll need replacing, but it’s a small task, for the reward of listening again to their sound alongside peepers, then tree frogs and hermit thrushes in summer. I will retie the strings, oil the wood. I will refasten its ligaments. I will remember.

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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.”

compbookMy 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.”

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This weekend, we went to our 15th high school reunion. We visit the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy frequently, living only one town away, so the physical nostalgia did not press in on us as it did on those coming back for the first time in more than a decade. Still, there are the small things: the window I would sit under on warm nights listening to the mysterious music coming from the Afro-Latino Exonian Society’s room; the corners and alcoves that seemed to my hormone-addled teenage mind more than secluded enough for making out, but which are revealed, in the stark light of adulthood, to be as public as a mall food court.
Twice over the course of the weekend, I found myself alone with my kids in the cage. The cage is a decrepit, dim, earthen floored indoor track with a high glass ceiling and dirt caked brick walls. The cage has a creaking, wooden, elevated deck for runners looking to keep out of the fray of whatever is happening on the ground floor. It has a concrete floored bathroom with a single toilet, a barred and cracked window, and a grime streaked towel for drying your hands. The cage is the underbelly of Exeter, as far as one can get from the life-sized whale skeleton hung in the sunny atrium of the new science building, or the bright airy spaces of the new student center. Fifteen minutes in the cage leaves a film of gray dirt on your teeth and blackened snot in your nose. I ran in the cage almost every day of every winter of the four years I was on the track team. I know the cage’s days are numbered, and I will mourn it when it’s gone. Or renovated, and bright and airy, which is as good as gone.

I came to Exeter from Amesbury, a town 10 miles south. I was a day student, dropped off every morning and fetched every evening by my father. I had no experience with privilege, wealth, foreign travel, and had previously met perhaps four people who were not white. I was mute in every class, taken unawares by the school’s Harkness system, a small group discussion format that paralyzed me with an anxiety that did not abate in the four years I was a student. I was bewildered, and intimidated, and very definitely in the wrong math class.

The cage's sole window, in the bathroom cell.

The cage’s sole window, in the bathroom cell.

I was also a somewhat feckless member of the track team. A naturally quick sprinter, fast out of the blocks, I was nonetheless a bane to my tirelessly enthusiastic coach. I had little interest in actually training. I failed to reach my “potential” by a fair distance. Despite that, the cage was my refuge, and my freedom. Before practice, I would arrive early and lie flat on my back on the pole vault mats in my second-hand running shoes and stare up at the slant winter light filtering through the dust-gray glass roof, thinking about math class, or my boyfriend, or whatever fresh horror had befallen me in class that day. Then I would rise with my teammates and plod around the track for training laps, waiting for the command to open it up and sprint. I could fly around the dark, banked corners of that track, and best people who were smarter, and richer, and much, much savvier about just about everything in the world.

My sons ran with me in the cage this weekend, and I taught them long jump in the same pit where I learned, and where I competed until a false step sheared my pelvis just a little ways from my spine and that was that, as far as jumping went.

When the cage is gone, the physical memory will go too. I will have the memory itself, but the ghosts will go, having nowhere left to haunt. I’m not against progress; I have progress to thank for Exeter in the first place, since girls weren’t admitted until 1970. And there have been decades of other good, though often slow, changes. But I’m not against tradition either, or the austere past, the scooped depressions worn into the Academy Building’s marble steps by generations of WASP boys, then Catholic and Jewish boys, black ones, then girls too, then all in every color and creed, from every quarter. The place itself has a long memory.

IMG_3658I have a picture of myself from the school newspaper hurtling into that same long jump pit, with my owlish glasses and frizzy pouf of hair. The walls bear the wooden, hand-lettered plaques with the names of hall of fame runners in the 40 yard dash, the 300 yard, all the races before things became modern, and metric. In the cage this weekend, I could almost see myself there as that girl again, racing down the runway to plant her toe on the board. I could almost touch her in the rush of air as my own son ran and leapt, over and over, through my own cold shade, the dust rising from his heels.

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