Bob the Dog had shown up again at the school.
Bob was an ever-roaming and indefatigable Australian border collie, known to turn up at strange times in strange places all over the town of Ripton. Often he’d be observed trotting down the middle of a snowy mountain road or waiting at a back door with a stick in his teeth.
Bob was also a member of an original NBS family, the Allens, whose three children, Sophie, Walker, and Lydia had attended the school. Mia was a co-founder and the only chairperson of the board the North Branch School had ever had.
I called the Allens to tell them we had Bob. When Freeman showed up later to collect him, he’d brought with him books for our school library. One was a volume of Isaac Asimov short stories. The other was a small, brown, side-stitched chapbook, from an 1969 edition of 400 by Spiral Press. In it were only five pages, a poem by Frost called “One Favored Acorn,” published on the occasion of the dedication of the Robert Frost Cabin and Homer Noble farm, where Frost had spent many summers. Freeman had been at the dedication and had two copies and so was donating one to the school.
The poem was not in Frost’s Collected Poems. I had never seen it before or even heard of it. Holding the slim volume was like having picked up a rare treasure. Ten stanzas, thirty lines dropping down the pages in perfect terza rima.
That afternoon I told the class about the poem and held the volume up to show them.
“Can we hear it?” Liam asked. I explained about how terza rima worked and then I read it.
More than a million seed
Most of which must fail
And go for squirrel feed.
Some had got themselves hurled
On the equinoctial gale
Far out into the world.
Some when the wind was still
Had fallen plummet direct
(but may have bounced down hill).
In a hollow some lay in a heap
Not knowing what to expect
Two or three acorns deep.
Already at one extreme
By autumn dampness’ aid
Some were showing a toothlike gleam
What might have been a fuse
To some small devil grenade
Fat-loaded ready to use.
All that mast must perish
Unless I should intervene
And pick one up to cherish.
I might plant one in a yard
To alter a village scene
And be of long regard.
But whether with faithfully shut
Or intelligently open eyes
I wished I could choose a nut
That would be most appreciative
And would feel the most surprise.
At being allowed to live.
Nothing much happened after I read it. We talked briefly about what it might mean. What’s he saying about the “toothlike gleam?” You never know what will happen. Chance or conscious decision may bear fruit one day. Maybe it’s about wanting to live on after you die. Life is precious. We have a chance to live.
The afternoon passed, the day ended, the students went home. As always, I had no idea what if anything might have gone in, what seeds germinating, what fuses lit. That night I awoke and remembered the poem. I thought of that toothlike gleam; I could see the whiteness shining in the dark. I recalled how I had once picked up oak acorns from a litter of wet leaves to see the smoothe taproots finding their way into the earth, each one a possible life just beginning.
We were studying religion throughout that year. The idea of heaven and hell came up frequently. Was there a heaven or hell after this worldly life? Most of the kids in class said they did not believe in either place.
“What if we say there is no hell after life, but only hell in life,” I proposed. “If that was the case, what would comprise your own personal hell? What would ‘hell in life’ be?”
“Mine would be what I wrote in my place description,” said Marley. She had recently written a short piece about fear of death, the fear of darkness, of not being able to sleep, of fearing to wake up and have everyone gone, or even waking up grumpy and tired, and only ever seeing the clock turn slowly and being so tired and scared to face the day. It was a description of an adolescent beginning to face the world alone.
“Let’s try that,” I said. “Let’s do what Marley did and all try to write what our own hells are. Get your writing utensils and a sheet of parchment. Or you can use your typer.” After a minute of rustling and clearing the table, the room settled into quiet. Only the sound of pencils or fingers clicking on keyboards.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading what we had written. Every kid in the room had “hellish” feelings which constantly collided into others, created conflicts and misunderstanding. For many, these undesirable states were seemingly always there, controlling instead of being controlled. The hell of always fighting or too much fighting with parents or siblings; of not knowing what to say; of feeling like a failure; of not wanting to be in the crowd, or wanting too much to be in the crowd; of being alone; of wondering: does anyone care about me? Do I matter? Of not understanding what is going on; of being afraid to ask a question or of saying something true; of feeling trapped. Guilty. Lying. Being bored, wrong, empty, greedy; the fear of silence, of wanting big thoughts, or not having them; of having big thoughts and being frightened; of not being liked or noticed or good. Over and over, the theme of wondering if one made a difference, if one mattered, if the universe held us each apart and alone.
Later I read Julian of Norwich’s prayer which begins: “Be a gardener;/ Dig a ditch; /toil and sweat, /and turn the earth upside down/ and seek the deepness and water the plants in time.” If education was anything, it was about upending the surface of things and planting, inculcating a belief in work and beauty to come. I wanted them to remember Frost’s single acorn, to have faith in what could be born and what might come to be one day. I often had to tell this to myself: my work matters. I’m given a few seasons and a few favored acorns, these few students. I toil in darkness. I try to cherish them and hope they are well-rooted, that they will outlive me and alter the village scene and the world after.
Like most days, we did not come to answers or conclusions. The questing and the questioning rolled on out of one day and into the next. Like a sequence of interlocking rhymes, we picked up one unfinished thought and started a new one. The gift of understanding would not appear on this day but in ten thousand days to follow.
That night I could not sleep again. I thought of the day’s classes, the conversations, the half-thoughts, the unresolved issues, the simmering conflicts, the ongoing struggles. I thought of the world, too, with its violence and suffering, assassinations and corruptions and deprivations, its injustices and coarseness and vulgar arguments over truth and fact. I lay in the dark asking: “How is it likely to get better? How is it likely to change?”
In the morning light, I woke and heard words echoing in my head, like someone calling from another room, reminding me. The lines were from Frost’s “Birches.” “Earth’s the right place for love:/ I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
I left the house that morning, the words of the poet trying to make me see. I tried to work out the dialogue in my head. We know, or we are trying to know, that the only place it can go better is here. There is no other world. This place, this time, this day. Heaven or hell—either way, I could make something only now. The only way I could face my students was with my eyes faithfully shut or intelligently open. Sitting among them was the only where I could be. We had to try to make it go better.
And then, some days later, I was sorting through drawings that the kids had made in science class while they watched a film about the inquisition of Galileo. The pictures were meant to show in symbolic images what science could learn from religion, and what religion could learn from science. Crude or expert drawings of candles, the Greek symbols for alpha and omega, volcanoes, rivers, trees, ladders, crucifixes, altars, a pair of praying hands, stairways, eyes, lightning, constellations, swords, snakes and dogs—scattered and scrawled depictions of a child’s emerging sense of the cosmos. One of the students had drawn a picture of a candle and a scale. Above, the words, “eyes faithfully shut or intelligently open” were written boldly and brightly, as though announcing to us or reminding herself that in exchange for being allowed to live we must hold these two poles in balance; as though to say we must learn to walk ever so tenderly and hopefully under the old trees and among flickering candles, cherishing both paths and both kinds of vision.
Later that week I was reading through character sketches the kids had written. One of the sketches, about the writer’s dad, ended with these lines: “I want to love, play and laugh with him. I want to get the bond between us stronger; I want to appreciate him more. I want to learn from him, and always tell the truth. I don’t want to upset him. I want to make him proud…I want to be that special acorn to him who appreciates where I am and that I am living. I want to be the best acorn to him.”
As I read it to the class I felt something inside me moving. My own voice quivered and my own eyes filled. This child, who proclaimed her dream to be the best acorn, was right here, listening and speaking, in the molder of the day, among all the other ones with their taproots just beginning to seek for the depths. She was seeing the possibilities before her. I am living, she said. She did not want all that to perish. That was a beauty and mast we could keep.