Hometown tradition haiku

Marshall High School had long marked the end of the school year by naming students to the esteemed positions of Honor Stations.
Marshall High School Honor Stations 1969. (Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana)

So blithely we scrapped
our outmoded traditions.
But what did we know?


NOTES: My high school had long observed a set of traditions at graduation time.  While probably only a few decades old, to us callow kids, those customs may just as well have  been prehistoric.

For as long as we could remember, our school had marked the end of the school year with a Baccalaureate service, a Commencement ceremony, and Honor’s Night. The first was inspirational, and still carried a whiff of religion.  Commencement was more perfunctory, and mainly served to get your tassel turned and your diploma into your eager, waiting hands.

But the real ceremony happened at Honor’s Night.  That was where academic achievement and athletic prowess were feted.  Scholarships were announced.  Awards and certificates of all types were handed out.  But while the awards were many, there was still a good measure of exclusivity. Not everyone got a trophy. It was the merit system on steroids.

The pinnacle of Honor’s Night was–as it had always been–the presentation of the Honor Stations.  Four couples from the senior class had been selected, each meant to represent one of the four cardinal virtues of our school.  They were to be arrayed on the stage of the auditorium beneath solemnly lit candelabras dressed in formal gowns and white dinner jackets.  They personified:

  • Most Industrious
  • Best Sport
  • Most Courteous
  • Best Citizen

(Historical note by way of full disclosure:  My brother Larry had been named Most Courteous in 1960, coasting to the honor on his winning smile and prodigious gift of gab.)

At the center of the stage sat Miss Fair Marshall, complete with a tiara.  We were not sure, but we suspected she represented all the good and pure and gracious qualities of Missouri womanhood.

I forget exactly how the Honor Stations were nominated and selected, but I seem to remember some sort of balloting by the student body.

THE DEMISE OF MISS FAIR MARSHALL

Miss Fair Marshall had a male escort, but he was merely unelected arm-candy.  The star of the evening and the center of attention was the fair maiden.

I should add one more fact, especially for those too young to remember.  The late 1960s were a time of upheaval and ferment.  Across the country, kids were growing their hair, listening to loud music and protesting the Vietnam War.

The times were a’changing, and although change might have come more slowly to our Missouri farm town than other places, we were not immune.

When I was a junior, the senior class of 1969 did a bold and daring thing.  (Many of my classmates and I admired our elders in the class of ’69.  We saw them as smart and sophisticated and worldly.)

The dramatic move they made was to vote to eliminate Miss Fair Marshall. It was a shocking move.

I’m not sure if there was ever a cogent explanation made why this was a good idea.  I suspect it had something to do with an unconscious awareness that having a “princess” without an equivalent prince was somehow unfair or sexist.  Or perhaps it was a rejection of the whole patriarchal-vestal-virgin vibe given off by the institution

I dunno.   But the hippies and the intellectual artsy kids rejoiced that year over the demise of Miss Fair Marshall.  And, I suspect that many would-be beauty queens wept.

THE NEXT YEAR, OUR CLASS HAD ITS TURN

I recall sitting the next year in our snoozy all-senior-class meeting called for the sole purpose of deciding whether we would bestow a clock or a plaque as our senior gift to the school.

At some point in the proceedings, I turned to my friend Clyde Smith and joked, “Wouldn’t if be funny if we abolished Honor Stations?”

He replied that that was a great idea, and that I should propose it.  I told him to do it.  He looked directly at me and said, “No, it’d be better if you did it.”

Thinking back, I do recall that there had been some earlier joking about how ridiculous the Honor Stations had become. The year before, the position of male Most Industrious had been filled by our older friend John Swisher.  Now John was one of the smartest, funniest and cleverest guys you’d ever want to meet.  But he was the first to admit that he was nowhere close to being the most industrious member of his class.

John had even made many a hilarious joke about his lackluster work ethic and the irony of him being named Most Industrious.

So, I had already concluded that the Honor Stations were hypocritical. And, with no more forethought than that, I popped out of my seat, walked to the front and made a motion to abolish Honor Stations.

I think I heard what you might call an audible silence.

I’m not sure exactly what happened next.  I thought I detected murmuring from the gaggle of popular girls.  Probably looking forward to wearing formal dresses up on the stage, I thought.

There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition.  But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom Nicholas stood up.  Tom was the most rock ‘n’ roll member of our senior class.  He had long hair before anyone else.  He played guitar in a real band, and he exuded rebel cool.

Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this.  It’s called ‘ego-trip.'”

That pretty much sealed the deal.  Honor Stations were ego trips.  The question was called, and the motion overwhelmingly carried.

The Class of 1970 had finished the work of our predecessors.  We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I was exhilarated and pretty darn proud of myself–for a short time.

A UNEXPECTED LESSON

Later that day, I was pulled aside by Mrs. Van Meter for a brief, one-way conversation.  Dorothy Van Meter taught English, and was pretty much universally regarded as one of the “cool teachers.”  She conducted discussion nights at her apartment for students and former students.  These were heady salons where heady subjects like philosophy, truth and beauty were seriously discussed.

Mrs. Van Meter had hung a small peace symbol over the door to her classroom, and on the day of the Vietnam War Moratorium, she came to school dressed in black.  So, she had credibility with the free-thinking, progressive students.  She was actually the last teacher I suspected would hector me for my blow against hidebound tradition.

She was also known to take an interest in the character formation of her students. She was known to prescribe books or disciplines she thought would round out a particular student’s soul.  I was a muscle-bound jock and she told me to pick up a book on yoga.  And when I was flirting with the moral perils of agnosticism she gave me her copy of Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  She even recommended weight-lifting for one of my classmates who was musical and brilliant, but soft and plump.

Her word to me on this day was matter of fact and brief.

“You know,” said Mrs. Van Meter, “some ideals are worth preserving whether they are fully lived out or not.”

That was it, and she wheeled around and left.

Her words took a while to sink in.  But that simple truth just might have been the most important thing I learned in high school.

Dorothy Van Meter was considered one of the
Mrs. Dorothy Van Meter (Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana)
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Hometown haiku

Teachers can have a profound effect on the lives of their students

Thank you, my teachers.
You endeavored alchemy
on our feckless minds.


Notes:  When I was growing up in my small Missouri farm town, we were blessed with an amazing collection of teachers in  our public schools.  So many of them were serious educators who saw teaching as a calling.

Just the other day, as I was flipping through an old high school yearbook, I found a loose print of this photo stuck in between the pages.  I’m sure I had seen it before, but it must have been more than 45 years ago.

It’s the only photo I have of two of the most influential teachers in my life.

John Hudnall and Dorothy Van Meter are riding in the 1969 Marshall High School Homecoming Parade as part of the Faculty Pep Squad.  They were good sports.  (I have no recollection what the deathlike character in the foreground is supposed to represent.  Possibly the defeat of our football opponent, perhaps.)

Finding that photo prompted a little meditation about what those two teachers meant to me.

John must have seen some very well hidden potential in me and named me editor of the high school year book.  He sent my fellow editor, Marilyn Doyle Crawford, and I to a journalism summer camp at the University of Missouri, where I got my first taste using good design to tell a story in print.

We came back from that camp and proceeded to lead a great yearbook team in publishing a book that told the story of our schoolmates during our turbulent senior year.

Little did I know that, years later, I would earn my living doing pretty much the same thing.  For my entire career, I’ve been a professional story-teller.  First as a journalist, then as a writer and creative director, with a little poetry on the side.

Dorothy also had a profound effect on my life — not in the professional arena, but in my personal life.  She was the type of teacher who seemed to be always looking for ways to inspire her students to think deeper, push harder, and become better human beings.  She would hold intellectual salons in her living rooms where past and present students would gather to discuss ideas, art, and literature, and debate philosophy.

It was heady stuff for a hayseed kid like myself, just a few years removed from the farm.

She took an interest in me and recommended two books, which I think she prescribed to correct what she diagnosed as deficiencies in my soul.

First, she said I should get a book on yoga and do the exercises.  This may have partly been because I was a bit of a muscle-bound jock, with no sense of the mystical.

Then, she handed me her own hardback copy of Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  She also likely sensed that I was spiritually ignorant and morally vulnerable.  And she would have been correct.

By age 17, I had pretty much sloughed off the simple Christian faith of my parents.  I had embraced the ideas that Freud and Darwin had rendered faith obsolete, and I thought God was dead, whatever that meant.

Dorothy could probably tell I was headed for treacherous moral waters when I left home for college.  The counterculture was peaking right at that time.  The siren call of sex, drugs, and rock & roll was beckoning.

At first, I paid far more attention to paperback book on hatha yoga I purchased off the rack at the local Red Cross Drug Store.  I stretched my muscles, did the poses, and read other books about the masters.  When I went to college, I signed up for meditation classes, studied Eastern philosophy, and tried my best to become a Hindu.  Alas, it was much too difficult.

It turned out that Screwtape Letters would play a more profound role in my life.  I read it right away, and then promptly tried to forget it.  But Lewis’s vivid fictional portrayal of correspondence between a senior devil and his nephew, a junior tempter, stuck with me.

All that stuff about a spiritual world with an ancient foe seeking to work us ill couldn’t be true.  Could it??!

But sure enough, after a year and a half of dissipation at college, I faced a spiritual crisis.  I had the distinct impression God was after me like a coon hound hot on the trail.  When I hit bottom, the first thought I had was to turn to Lewis for help in trying to figure out what was happening to me.  So I reread Screwtape, and it scared the willies out of me.  Then, I ran to the library and started devouring Lewis’s other books.

Here was a guy who was as smart — actually smarter — than my professors.  His Mere Christianity all of a sudden made perfect sense to me, and made faith intellectually acceptable.  Though as providential series of events, I came to faith in Jesus.  And that has been the most important event in my life.

Needless to say, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Screwtape Letters.

These were just two of the influential teachers.  I’ve written before about some of the others:  Paul Hagedorn for fanning the flames of poetry back in 11th grade English class.  Coaches Cecil Naylor and Wayne O’Neal for teaching us how to win.  Mary Lou Porter and Marie Connell for turning us on to Shakespeare.

Margaret Buie for opening up the ancient world through Latin.  David Washburn for inspiring creativity through theater.  And Billy Bob Stith and Catherine Kennedy for making math and science interesting even to a right-brain guy like myself.

I’m not sure if these wonderful educators have been replaced by teachers equally as dedicated or not.  My hope is that kids today would have the chance to be taught by such as the likes of them.

“Oh love! for love I could not speak”

Pontefract licorice cakes tin
“In the licorice fields at Pontefract”

John Betjeman had what you could call a checkered career.

He struggled at Oxford, and ultimately left without a degree. He published poems and made great friends, yet held a lifelong grudge against C.S. Lewis from his time at Oxford when Lewis was his teacher. (Lewis reportedly assessed Betjeman as “an idle prig.”

During World War II, he worked for the Ministry of Information and may have been involved in intelligence gathering.  One story that has grown up about Betjeman is that he was once targeted for assassination by the Irish Republican Army.  But the order was supposedly rescinded when an old IRA man spoke on his behalf because he had been impressed by his poems.

You might say Betjeman was eventually vindicated. He was named Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1972. Oxford awarded him an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

I don’t fancy all of his poetry, but sometimes he really hits me between the eyes. Like his poem about love, “The Licorice Fields at Pontefract.”

His poem is rich with specific detail and is so descriptive, it almost overloads the senses. Betjeman is a reserved Englishman, but he tells you enough to let you know what’s going on.

The Licorice Fields at Pontefract
by John Betjeman

In the licorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened licorice bush
Was blooming round our feet;
Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack’d
The strongest legs in Pontefract.

The light and dangling licorice flowers
Gave off the sweetest smells;
From various black Victorian towers
The Sunday evening bells
Came pealing over dales and hills
And tanneries and silent mills
And lowly streets where country stops
And little shuttered corner shops.

She cast her blazing eyes on me
And plucked a licorice leaf;
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief.
Oh love! for love I could not speak,
It left me winded, wilting, weak,
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.