There’s a school in old New England on Connecticut’s fair shore.
There, among magnolia blossoms, maidens con their lessons o’er;
Where the tree they love so dearly gathers ’neath her generous shade
All the young and eager students that are sent to her for aid.
School these days is not the physically safe environment that it was when I was a schoolchild in the fifties. News from Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where the families of Naomi Rose Ebersole, 7; Marian Fisher, 13, and Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her seven-year-old sister, Lena were recently buried, is proof that times have changed.
Although the children were Amish, the killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, aged 32, had nothing against the Amish sect. He had a twenty-year-old grievance of an undisclosed nature and one fine day he decided to settle the score that existed somewhere in his mind. He chose targets near at hand and undefended. When his work was done, he killed himself.
If the Edenic countryside of Amish country, Pennsylvania, cannot promise safety, it seems safe to say that there is no safe place for our children today. Violence in schools is a broadly enough based issue that there are national clearinghouses of information on it. This pattern of break-out shootings and other physical damage wrought in schools goes back at least forty years, gradually increasing until today, where there seems to be an epidemic of it.
This is the inevitable companion of increasing violence all through the fabric of our society. Domestic violence has become such an issue that a 39¢ stamp urges the sender to stop family violence. Road rage is everywhere, every day. And our national mood is such that we have volunteer posses guarding our borders, and the national tendency to use violence as a policy which is seen as a better choice than the option of using diplomacy and the tools of negotiation.
Our media are awash in violence, combined with a hectic sexuality flowing from the overly generous cleavage of actors playing professional roles like policemen and lawyers but dressing like prostitutes.
There is a need for us as a nation to reassess our national emotional health!
Against this background of troubled times, it was a sweet and innocent journey I recently took to New England, where I spent my senior year in a boarding school 45 years ago. I wanted to go to the reunion this year because one of my friends at the school was receiving the Distinguished Alumna Award. So I braved the security dragons at the airport and headed northeast.
I unabashedly adore this school, The MacDuffie School, in Springfield, Massachusetts. I came to it as a public school misfit. My mind was quick and public school teachers had been very discouraging to me. Several times, I was given an F on English class essays because the teachers were certain I had not written the work myself. I had, of course. But how to prove it? Other English teachers flunked me because they said my writing made no sense. And the students with whom I attended classes decreed that I was not with the in-crowd. I survived nicely, but there was pain involved.
When I got to MacDuffie, everything turned around completely. My teachers criticized my work, of course, but from the context of supporting and encouraging me to improve, and with good suggestions which I could use. And what teachers they were! My English teacher was a Ph.D. who had tired of the academic grind. All of the faculty there were remarkably good. And the students had a completely different take on me. Instead of mocking me by calling me “professor,” they accepted and loved me. In an atmosphere of heightened parental expectations - for every prep school student is expected to move on to college, and usually a particular college from which a parent has formerly graduated — my willingness to form study groups and help others prepare for tests was very much appreciated.
To that school in old New England we will true and loyal be,
We will treasure all the blossoms that we pluck from off the tree.
And with courage and with honor will we ever bravely fight
To keep our cherished colors of the old maroon and white.
My favorite memory from that school year of 1960-61 was of a bonnie afternoon in May, near the end of the school year. I had received a gift book, “The Prophet,” by Kahlil Gibran. Three of us took time that day to wander over to a beautiful cemetery near the school. We spread our skirts out and sat under a huge tree. With the sunlight dappling through the young leaves and flicking lambent gold across us, we read the whole book to each other. It was a high point of my time at MacDuffie which I have never forgotten.
When in after years we gather in reunion one and all,
When the echo of our laughter floats through study-room and hall,
When dear faces rise before us and past scenes we seem to see,
We will sing this song together, ’neath the old magnolia tree.
Five of us - the three who read “The Prophet” that day in 1961, plus my MacDuffie roommate and the woman who introduced me to the headmaster, and made it possible for me to get a scholarship there, came together again and had a wonderful reunion. We loved the tour of the school, where so much has changed and for the better. We greatly enjoyed the banquet, visiting with so many whom we have not seen in so long. And it was wonderful to be there for Beth when she accepted her richly deserved award.
However, the highlight of our time together was when we wandered into the cemetery once more, “The Prophet” in hand, and once again read through that little book of wisdom and love. As these beloved voices rolled around my head and embraced me in that special energy only the spoken voice produces, I felt cynicism and rough times fall away. I was caught in a web of beauty and goodness. Love can survive time, even 45 years of it. The character, quality and beauty of the four women who shared this reading with me survive also.
Whatever the woes which infect our society, I believe that for the average schoolchild, those qualities of character, innocence and beauty still exist. My belief in my alma mater is doubled and tripled after a visit to the campus. The question on my mind as I return home concerns why we, as a nation, cannot seem to preserve childhood’s safety for our babies and young people. Let us give this some thought. Let us determine to re-create safety for our children.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit. I hope your own school days were filled to bursting with love. If instead you had a raggedy time of it in school, I just hope you have recovered your balance by now and gone on to great things, things like loving and being loved, laughing and serving and living well.