THOUGHTS WHILE SAILING MY OCEAN
A half century ago, I graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School, which is in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, PA. While there, I took both English and American literature classes in my junior and senior year. It was required back then to have each student memorize a couple hundred verses of poetry or lines of prose per semester.
My homeroom and American literature teacher was Mrs. Davis. She was an older teacher and quite demanding especially when it came to accuracy. We had to be perfect in our reciting to her the lines, which we picked to memorize. To say that I hated the memorization process would be an understatement...a great understatement. However, at least once a week, I would come in early or stay late and stand before her to recite my selected lines.
In spite of that painful process, I survived my educational ordeal of memorizing many hundreds of lines during my high school years. After graduation, I went to college, grad school, post grad school, and finally got my doctorate. Guess what? I still remember parts of a large number of lines that were memorized a half century ago.
In the midst of my educational journey after leaving Mt. Lebanon High School, I went to see Mrs. Davis. She had retired a couple years after I graduated in 1961. She and her husband lived in Florida. More than a decade had passed since I left Mt. Lebanon. Now, I could call her Anna. I told her about my dislike for the memorizing that I had to do for her and my other literature teachers. I also told her how much I still recall of those many lines committed to memory many years ago.
I am quite sure that I was the only student that had ever shared their dislike of having to memorize all those lines, while, at the time, their love that they had for being able to retrieve many of the lines decades later.
Anna told Charlie, her husband, to get her old textbook from her study. I was amazed that she still had her copy, which she had used for more than a dozen years at Mt. Lebanon. When Charlie returned, Anna presented it to me. It was her academic gift to the next generation. Her book had doubled its thickness due to her additions while she was teaching, which she had taped to most pages. These clippings were about the author, the author’s work, or another piece of poverty or prose having to do with that unit in the textbook.
Hardly a day goes by in my life of teaching at the college level that I don’t quote something to a student that I had memorized a half century ago. For example, I often use a stanza of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Chambered Nautilus to enliven my students to apply themselves and learn.
Another oft used quote is from Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. When students express fear of tests or term papers, I recite this couplet as a warning to them:
Tragically, most of the students look at me with a blank stare on their faces not having the foggiest understanding of what Caesar is telling them.
Another one that I loved to quote about life in general was from George Eliot’s story, Silas Marner. She wrote this exactly a century before I graduated from Mt. Lebanon.
Hardly ever in a half century has June arrived without me quoting from The Vision of Sir Launfal these words:
For those that didn’t have Mrs. Davis allow me to share with you Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and two of his most beautiful poems. The first is The Tide Rises and the Tide Falls:
Longfellow was one of the greatest American poets. Many of his poems dealt with abolition of slavery directly or indirectly. O Ship of State, which he wrote in 1850, was written in the lead-up to the Civil War. Read especially the first 5-lines. It is Longfellow’s resolve and faith that America could face the difficulty of addressing the issue of slavery.
FDR, to my knowledge, never had Mrs. Davis for American literature. However, in January of 1941, he wrote from his memory the first 5-lines of O Ship of State, then signed his name, and mailed it to Winston Churchill. In a radio broadcast to the British people in early February, Churchill spoke about FDR’s quotation from Longfellow’s poem. Then Churchill said,
Less than a year later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and hurled America into WWII. Again, Longfellow’s haunting words echoed still. This time the echo was heard across all the oceans of the entire world:
Every year or so, my wife, Ann, and I go overseas for a month. We have been all over the world—to places many Americans have gone and to places few Americans ever would dare to go. What we learn provides depth to what we learn in textbooks, TV, or the Internet. Ann had never been to Greece and Turkey, and I hadn’t been there for a quarter of a century. Greece is a country made up of more than 6,000 islands. Therefore, the Greeks learned sailing three millennia ago. This summer, we traveled to a handful of Greek islands...by sea.
Our wedding anniversary was within a couple of weeks of our return home. Having spent several weeks on the Greek islands, we decided to get a pair of kayaks for the lake behind our house. Hardly a day goes by that I am not out on the lake doing a great cardiovascular exercise program for nearly an hour.
If it is not raining, I’m out there. I paddle a long loop from my house to the end of the lake and back. There isn’t much to do while paddling for an hour except to think. For me, I think about things that I have to do that day and about articles that I want to write. As I was paddling along, it wasn’t a week before Longfellow’s poem, O Ship of State was echoing in my head.
I fantasized that I was a young Greek sailor like Odysseus attempting to return home after the Trojan War. It took Odysseus ten long years to get back home to Ithaca. It was taking me only an hour to get back home though. During that cardiovascular exercise, my mind thought about the lesson that we could all learn from Longfellow’s thought-process.
I first thought about my new grandchild, Jack. I want to give him the confidence as he is sailing boldly into the toddler’s stage. I don’t want him to give into the fear of falling while learning to walk or becoming frustrated with his limited vocabulary. At this point in time, he can say, Momma, Daddy, duck, uh-oh, bye-bye, bubble, hi, wow, and Papa.
After another couple of days mulling around encouraging Jack in the whirlwind of problems facing an almost toddler, I thought about America politically and economically. It didn’t take long before I was thinking about President Obama and his worries and concerns facing him and our country. He is the captain of our ship of state as the Commander-in-Chief. How does he turn around our economy, which he inherited from the previous president, while the rest of the world including Greece is also suffering?
I want to reinforce the truth to our president that sailing takes guts. Guts were required several millennia ago in Greece as well as today. The issue is to sail on...in spite of the problems and the naysayers. Both Barack and Jack have America in their gene pool. That gene pool corrected and changed America by ending slavery and also ending another century of segregation. We have fought wars that were necessary so that our country could survive. We also fought wars that we shouldn’t have fought and learned from those mistakes. These words were true in 1850 as they are today...
Therefore, I want both Jack and President Obama to sail on their respective ships knowing full-well that people are counting on both of them to gut it out. Jack, your parents and grandparents know that you will be walking in a couple of days in spite of the worry and concern you face sailing (toddling) along on the living room floor.
Mr. President, my wife and I along with the rest of America and the world know that you will sail on facing some more critical issues than learning to walk like Jack. Nevertheless, both you and Jack share similar worries and concerns. You both have had successes but uncertainty looms in both your lives on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Longfellow tells us all...
I know, I sound like a doting grandfather, but I am deeply concerned about both of you and Jack and the world in general when I might not be around to see it. Therefore, don’t forget Longfellow and sail on--bravely.
A short postscript: I proofed this article, another thing that causes me concern like memorizing poetry, and I went out on the lake again at noon, this Saturday, October 8. It was a beautiful fall day. Blue skies and a gentle breeze welcomed me. However, no one was out there on the lake...no one. I was alone, all, all alone just thinking and paddling along. Again, lines learned a half century ago returned. This time it was Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the lines I once memorized.
Visit the "The Hand May Be a Little Child's" page to read more about this topic.