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.


         “Sleepy Hollow September 11th” by Corinne H. Smith


          Could you hear the planes fly over

          From your cemetery ridge?

          Or the chilling silence afterward –

          No roars above the bridge?


          Did the Hawthornes and the Alcotts

          Talk it over with you then?

          And did one send word to Emerson

          At his home around the bend?


          Did Concord’s best decipher

          All the meanings of the act?

          Did you enter conversation

          And debate it forth and back?


          Did Waldo make pronouncements

          To expound his point of view?

          Did Bronson take the other side,

          As he was wont to do?


          And what of all the voices

          Of the women on the hill?

          Did you honor their opinions?

          Does the air carry them still?


          You’ve had some time to analyze

          And argue once or twice.

          Could you spell it out for us, then?

          We’ll heed your sage advice. *

            My original working copy from that night


    I knew what I had to do. I made another nice handwritten copy. And the next day, I went back to Sleepy Hollow and put the poem next to Henry Thoreau’s headstone. I had folded it into its own kind of secure envelope, just like we used to do when we passed notes around in junior high school. Other tributes were already there: pencils, pebbles, pine cones, pennies. Mine was the only piece of paper, though.


    That fall, I contributed the poem to the online Concord Magazine for its Autumn 2002 edition. Included on the web page was a brief bio and a link to my e-mail address.




     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.




   I am Jan Shoemaker.

In 2002 I found

your poem on Thoreau’s

grave. I kept it. It

hangs on the wall of

my American Lit class

 in Michigan. I read

it to my students

every year – the[y] love it.

   Thank you. I can’t

believe I just stumbled

upon you here.”




     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.



“Jan –

I can’t believe you’re

here! I think of you

from time to time. And

I lost access to the e-mail

from long ago when you (or

your daughter?), [wrote to me] so I’ve

been unable to contact you.

We’ll have to talk!




[I guess we were both so

surprised that neither one of us

proofread our notes before we

handed them over.]




     And we did hug and talk, at the first break in the meeting. It turns out that Jan wasn’t even attending the Gathering. She was in town for the Walden Woods Project teachers conference that was scheduled to begin the next day. She had seen the open door of First Parish Church and wondered what was going on. (Especially since the congregation had permanently hung a large BLACK LIVES MATTER banner between two columns on the front porch. Jan was relieved to be visiting a blue state. She thought some kind of rally might be taking place.) She learned at the door that it was the Annual Gathering of The Thoreau Society. Jan asked the woman at the registration table if she knew me and if I was there. The answer was yes to both, and I could be pointed out in the sanctuary. This is how Jan came to slide into the other end of the same pew.

     Ours was such an amazing story that I asked for the chance to share it with the other attendees of the Gathering, just before the keynote speaker addressed the crowd. I pulled Jan up there with me too, so that she could be part of the announcement. Many folks approached both of us individually around town that weekend, telling us how much they appreciated hearing about our surprise encounter.

     On Tuesday, July 17, Jan and I met for dinner and for a stroll around downtown Concord. We learned that we have a fair amount in common. We had a wonderful, stimulating conversation over good food. She’s a writer too, in addition to being a teacher of English and world religions. We inscribed and exchanged copies of our books. We marveled at the circumstances that brought us together. And we vowed to stay in touch.


     The Concord Magazine is no longer online, so the only places where you can currently read “Sleepy Hollow September 11th” are here and in Jan’s classroom. And now you know "the rest of the story."


Jan Shoemaker and Corinne Smith, on the steps of First Parish Church. I'm holding a copy of Jan's book of essays, Flesh and Stones. Photo by Alan Rohwer.


* 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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