Mr. President, my senior seminar in college was called “Origins.” Only a few months away from entering the work-force, and I was reading The Prelude, studying the paintings of Constable and snippets of Freudian theory, re-reading long portions of Paradise Lost, and contemplating the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”
One of my classmates gave a presentation one day. He began by asking us to write down five species of tree and five species of plant native to where we grew up. He then asked us describe the geologic forces that created the regions from which we hailed. Most of us struggled to fill up our lists. His point was simple. We might know about the structure of Petrarchan sonnets, but we did not know much about our most immediate surroundings.
I still had a lot of learning to do to know about where I came from—and not only local history, or my family history. I needed to know the landscape, to have feeling for how the mountains were formed and the land was shaped. I needed to be closer to the ground I walked upon. And it was not necessarily the responsibility of a school system to teach me these things. I needed to find these things out for myself, and by myself.
When we founded our school in the Green Mountains of Vermont, we wanted as few barriers between inside and outside as possible. So we drew objects from nature-birch leaves and mayfly larvae. We made nature trails and ran on them. The kids were free to play outside at lunch. They chased each other in the woods with sticks, wrestled in the grass, climbed trees, sat the rock wall in the chill October air. I sent them out to meditate on sunny days. We did walking meditations in the snow when it was five degrees. When there was an owl perched in the maple behind the school, we all went out and silently observed it as it looked down on us. We waded in rivers and swamps. One fall a group of boys tied ribbons to branches to mark who had climbed which tree and how high. A group of girls went looking for birch saplings they could climb and then ride to earth, as Frost’s boy had in “Birches.” Another group of boys cleared a spot in the far woods and named it the “Philosopher’s Grove.” We made sculptures out of limbs and pinecones and we went to the river to build teetering towers with smooth stones. When winter ended, we we took bets on when the snow pile behind the school would melt, and when the first crocus would come up through the soil in the thawing soil by the front door. In late spring, I often began my afternoon class with a daisy chain hanging my neck that had been woven for me during lunch.
When we got our first snow this past November, the kids were transported into a joyous frenzy. The snow-balls flew. Our only rules: no ice-balls, no head shots, no throwing snow through open doors. At lunch they trampled the field and packed the snow down and made a small hockey rink with two lacrosse goals, using broken tree-limbs and brooms for sticks and a ball of tape for a puck. Another group made a giant snow-woman. She was eight feet tall. They got a ladder from the shed to add the facial features and then found a bra in the school’s old clothing bin. She stood in the shadows of the bare trees looking over an old stone wall into the neighbor’s cow pasture.
We wish for them to be close to the earth, and we wish for them to be close to each other. We want them to find their way to an ecstatic relationship with the world. There is more than enough enmity and and conflict, more than enough separation between us. Children don’t need a zero-sum game.
I invite you to imagine your young son. This morning you are dropping him off for school. You listen to the radio on the way there. He’s in charge of the stations, and he plays you a song he loves. You don’t love it, but you inquire, and ask him why he loves it, and laugh at him when all he can tell you is because it’s so cool.
You look out at the billboards and scraps of trash along the avenues. Thoughts of what you must do today creep into your mind, but you know these are the last moments before your release him to the world for the better part of his day. You push those thoughts away to think of him. You want so much for him. You want his teachers to see him, truly, as you know him. As you see him when he wakes up in the morning, as he is when he sings to himself at home when no one but you is listening.
You are not so much concerned that he is at the top of the class as much as you wish for him all happiness. You want him to delight in his work. You want his eyes to pop open in surprise when he studies ice-crystals under the microscope. You want his pride in the poem he has written to be greater than his nervousness to read it in front of his class. You want him to be kind. You want him to be friends with many kinds of people. You are hoping he is good.
When you arrive in front of the school a feeling tears at you. You don’t want to release him into the world. You want to keep him with you forever. You want to go home, you want to go to the park, you want to keep driving, head downtown to get hot chocolate and some doughnuts. You want him close because you’re not quite sure if the world is always a good place.
But he opens the car door. He’s got his back pack in his lap and he sets it onto the curb and you look at him. Be good today. Have fun. Learn everything you can. Help somebody who needs help. That is everything you have to give. It’s your blessing and prayer, the same one every day. You imagine him carrying those words like a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.
He’s got the back-pack on his shoulder. He looks at you with a little half-smile. I will dad, I will.
He shuts the door and you wait there, watching him walk into his school. He pulls the door open and turns his head to another child who is walking in with him. He is speaking to his friend but you can’t hear the words. They pass through the door together and then he disappears.