The Poem and the Teacher
by Corinne H. Smith
When I attended my second Annual Gathering of the Thoreau Society in 2002, I had the advantage of already knowing my way around Concord. So I was able to lead a few “newbies” up to Authors Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery one afternoon. As we stood and looked at the gravesites of the Thoreaus, the Hawthornes, the Alcotts, and the Emersons, I heard a plane fly overhead. This isn’t an unusual sound here, especially since Hanscom Field sits just down the road in Bedford. But it was 2002, and we were all still dealing with the realities and aftermaths of September 11, 2001. I suddenly remembered that the two planes that had hit the towers in New York had taken off from Logan Airport in Boston. I wondered. Had they flown over Concord on their way to their tragic ends?
Immediately and clearly in my head, I heard the first two lines of a new poem: “Did you hear the planes fly over / From your cemetery ridge?” I got chills. I knew I needed to write a poem that asked for coping advice from the folks whose graves we were visiting. But I was with other people, and for once, I wasn’t carrying a pen and paper in my pocket. So this could unfortunately not become a creative moment for me. As I walked back downtown with the little group, I chatted with them about the Thoreaus and the conference. But I also quietly chanted my opening lines to myself so that I wouldn’t forget them. “Did you hear the planes fly over …. Did you hear the planes fly over…”
I got caught up in the conference activities again and didn’t make a dedicated time to craft the poem. That evening, though, I got my chance. The final lecture of the day was a brutal one. The presenter meticulously dissected one paragraph of Thoreaau’s writings, almost word by word. The room was stifling hot and un-air-conditioned, and it was filled to the walls with a mass of bodies, to boot. Two minutes in, I knew that I didn’t want to be there. But I was sitting on a major aisle and near the front of the room. If I picked up my backpack and left, I would be noticeably rude. I was stuck. What could I do?
Oh, I wanted to write that poem, I thought to myself. I got out my notebook and pretended that I was taking notes. I didn’t have my rhyming dictionary with me, but I had tucked my thesaurus into my pack. I eased it out and consulted it when I hit snags in the delivery. By the time the speaker was getting his first round of applause, I had finished the poem. I was quite proud of it. During the Q&A follow-up, I wrote out a copy on a fresh sheet of paper. I handed it across the aisle to new friend Richard Smith. He read it and mouthed the word, Wow! I mouthed back: I just wrote this! Even I was blown away by what had come forth.
Sometime before 2010, I got an e-mail from a woman in Michigan. She and her daughter had tracked me down from the Concord Magazine posting. The woman had visited Concord some weeks after the 2002 Gathering. While she was up on Authors Ridge, she saw the poem I had left on Henry’s grave. She read it and liked it so much that she took it home with her. She had it framed, and she hung it in her English classroom so that it could inspire her students. She was grateful to finally find a way to personally thank me, the poet.
Wow! What a wonderful and reassuring compliment for any writer to receive! I felt honored. At the same time, I was initially and admittedly a bit miffed. I had left the poem for Henry, and not for someone from today. I decided to push this thought away. Instead, I had to smile every so often whenever I pictured my Sleepy Hollow poem hanging on a wall in a school in Michigan.
In 2010, my internet provider’s mail server crashed. Suddenly my inbox and outbox were both empty. I had lost all of my past messages, both sent and received. I had to start over, in a sense. In the weeks that followed, I spent a lot of time reconnecting with friends and colleagues, retrieving and remembering addresses. But lost to me forever was the contact information and the name of the teacher from Michigan. I hadn’t written them down anywhere else. I have thought of her on occasion during the last eight years, especially whenever I send out personal publicity. I wondered if I would ever be able to connect with her again. By now, I’m pretty findable online, with my own web site and lots of relevant links from other ones. I figured if she wanted to reach out again, she would.
During the second week of July 2018, I attended my 18th Annual Gathering. I gave three talks and led two walks and did a whole lot of running around at the edges. On Saturday morning, July 14, I went to First Parish Church in Concord for the business meeting of The Thoreau Society. I was sitting in my favorite spot there: in the middle of the sanctuary, on the left-hand side, about five rows back from the pulpit, parked next to the low wooden wall that divides the pews into two sections. A friend sat to my left. As the meeting went on, more people arrived in dribs and drabs. I caught a glimpse of a woman I didn’t know sliding into our pew from the right, on the other side of the divider. She was soon taking notes, just like I was. Then she handed me a piece of paper across the wooden wall. It had perfect handwriting on it. Teacher handwriting.
Wow! I couldn’t believe it either. Here was the mystery woman from Michigan, sitting just two feet away from me! I turned her note over and wrote back to her.
* For the record: Sometime during the past 16 years, I altered the last line of the poem. It now reads “We need your sage advice.” The difference is a change of only a few letters. I think the poem means more as a result.
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