Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

And Miles to Go

Today, wet to the bone but gathered in this splendid place, we stand beside a class forced to face more anxiety about external events in Washington than any graduating class since 1968. Imagine, if you will, a city burning. In September, 2001, this class stood at the Peace Cross to watch smoke rising from the Pentagon. 1968 stood there in April of that spring as smoke rose from a city enraged by the death of a slain civil rights leader, whose last sermon a week earlier was spoken from this very pulpit.

1968 came through. 2003 has come through. They have lived through 9/11, anthrax, an October sniper, and a war in Iraq, not to speak of the slings and arrows of life in a demanding school. For the past month we have told stories about them; we will continue to do so this afternoon, all weekend, and throughout the summer before they set off. In 2053 they will return, just as our colleagues from 1953 have, and tell stories again, only with far more experienced voices. I hope with no less enthusiastic sounds, about this School, about their own lives, even—God willing—about their children’s grandparents.

I am particularly honored today, first to stand with this class, and second, to stand in a line of some seen and some unseen educators. I stand with the St. Albans School Headmasters who have come before me, as well as the current Headmistresses of National Cathedral School and of Beauvoir, as those fathers and mothers fortunate enough to have delivered the commencement address to the graduating class which includes their son.

In a rare breach of Wilson family etiquette, my son has given me permission to tell a story in which he appears. In the 1980s at The Asheville School, a boarding school in western North Carolina, both Linda and I taught a brilliant young man named Casey Gallagher. Casey is now a doctor. As a young man, he was terribly attentive to our children, not simply because he was a good soul, but because he worried, inordinately so, about children born with a curse. What crippling curse was that? The burden of having two teachers as parents. Not only two teachers, he said, but one a math teacher and the other an English teacher. What worse possible combination was there for probable insanity? “Instead of singing lullabies,” Casey would say, “Mrs. Wilson probably quizzes them about the Fibonacci sequence. Before Mr. Wilson lets them eat, he probably makes them recite poetry.”

Little did Casey know. One afternoon Linda pulled our son in his red wagon on their usual afternoon constitutional past the dormitories and baseball field, faculty houses and gardens, to the stables, where they watched the horses. Casey happened to be returning from the tennis courts and stopped to talk. He asked our son where they were going. The little boy’s answer was “We have miles to go before we sleep.”

Casey took one look at Linda and said, “The kid is already quoting Frost. That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”

This father, the English teacher parent, began teaching fourteen years prior to this scene, in Atlanta, at The Lovett School. Three years into my career, a senior named Liza Wieland asked me to sponsor an independent study with her on Ezra Pound. I think one of the points I want to make this afternoon, Gentlemen, is that we need to be grateful for the gifts we are given. I mention this former student by name, Liza Wieland, in front of all these people who do not know her, because little did either one of us know what a gift her work in that course and her friendship would be to me and to my family. She is now the author of three highly regarded novels and a collection of short stories and is a professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Between the time Liza made the request for independent study and I agreed, however, the Headmaster of Lovett asked me to become the Upper School principal.

I remember that, after a particularly hard day in the spring my first year of being a school administrator, I stood at the window of my office staring out at the school pond. I found myself, more than once, staring out my office window at the pond—it was clearly the most beautiful place on campus. In her chair across the room, my student Liza read aloud the text from one of Pound’s cantos. My mind—I’m sorry to say—was drifting. The words of the poem were in the air, but I couldn’t catch them. My desk was overburdened. At least fifteen pink telephone messages were piled atop each other. My Day-Timer had a ‘to-do’ list the length of Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield. My assistant had interrupted our class four times with urgent messages. And in 1978 I hadn’t even dreamed of the invention of e-mail.

     Liza stopped and said, “You’re staring out the window.”
     “I do that sometimes,” I said.
     “Do you love this work?” she asked.
     I came awake. “Of course I love this job. Now let’s get on with Mr. Pound— there’s not much time left.”
     “No, I mean, do you love this work?”
     Those of you raised on the Gospels might hear keen echoes in that repeated question. Jesus had challenged Peter by asking him three times if he loved him.
     “You should memorize these lines from Canto 81,” she said. “Maybe they would help you know how to really love your work.”

I did memorize the lines:

What thou lovest well remains,
                     the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

I’d like you to hold the image in your mind, if you will, of staring into the distance and hearing those lines—”what thou lovest well remains”—and let me go on with my story.    

A few days after our son was born in the summer of 1984, an odd-sized package arrived in the mail. It was a child’s picture book, with illustrations by Barry Moser, inscribed to our son from my former student Liza Wieland. Her letter to Linda and me said something like, “It can’t hurt to start them young, and this poem is perfect for kids.” I am keenly aware that I risk walking further into the land of graduation cliches now, and that sophisticated lovers of poetry are preparing to groan aloud, but the poem the book illustrated—remembering Casey Gallagher, you should be able to guess—was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

We are at a time when a love of poetry is resurging throughout our culture, building on the momentum of rap and now cafe poetry slams and even Broadway shows devoted to poetry. Billy Collins, a recent poet laureate, in his commencement address at Choate-Rosemary Hall, made some crucial observations about this ‘old’ poem—it was published in 1916. “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Collins argues, remains the most recognized poem in American literature. If you say, “I have promises to keep,” or “miles to go before I sleep,” people nod their heads. There are much better poems written by Robert Frost, we know, but PhDs in English, postal carriers, line workers, retirees, priests, and any number of people for nearly 100 years have cherished this poem and even memorized it.

The poem tells a story to every graduate from high school. A man stops his journey on “the darkest evening of the year” to stare at the woods. You might remember now the image of staring I asked you to hold in your mind. The man stops and stares. He watches the woods fill up with snow. They’re lovely—delightful, pleasing, beautiful, and even worthy of love. They’re dark, they’re deep—resonant words if used well. His behavior is not normal. His behavior is not productive. It doesn’t build a resume. It’s not networking. His horse, who I suspect is used to some hard driving, is so concerned “he gives his harness bells a shake.”

Imagine, if you will, that the men of 2003 have been traveling on a long journey, miles and miles and miles, to borrow a Peter Townsend line. Imagine that very near the end of their journey they have suffered through the dark and cold of 9 / 11, of anthrax, an October sniper, and a war in Iraq, all in order to keep the promises they’ve made. Think of all those promises. The final one of course is today—I will graduate. But there were so many more. I will honor my father and mother. I promise to keep track of things. I will hold no other Gods before thee. I will put things back where they belong. I will not lie, cheat, or steal. I will keep an assignment notebook. I will learn to listen. I will learn how to read a textbook. I will stop clicking my eraser pencil. I will put away pogs and read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I will do my science project. I will go to Woodlands and I will love it. I will join Mr. Herman on Fridays to run.

I promise to make use of my Upper School free time. I will not spend all my time playing X-Box. I will read thousands and thousands of pages. I will lift until it hurts, and then lift some more. I will sing in Chapel. I will not download music onto the School computers. I will support other students. I will tuck my shirt in. I will shake hands with my opponents. I will write the best history term paper I can. I will get my application in on time. I will turn in my journal in God. I will, I will, I will, and so on.

We are a School that values promises. We are a School that believes in keeping promises. It would be the worst kind of disingenuousness on my part to say we don’t. This great faculty, this Headmaster, and your parents have done everything we can to keep that sled of yours moving. But the man stopped. It was good that he stopped. He stared. The woods spoke to him—perhaps saying that what he loved well remains, that what he loved well was his true heritage. Then he was reminded again of his promises. Then he kept going.

I have spent most of my life driving a sled and trying to figure out when to stop it, watch the woods fill up with snow, and start the sled again. For long stretches of time, I have not been reflective about the journey, but have driven the sled hard enough to realize that if I didn’t stop and stare, I would crash the sled; my story is the same story as your parents’ stories, as it probably has many similarities to your story, even as young as you are. I have very little advice to give you, graduates, other than to say than the sooner you can become deeply reflective about this yin and yang of life, this ‘drive-the-sled’ and ‘stare-at-the-woods’ of life, the better.

Why? Because we’re human, and this is a dilemma we have read about in the oldest of literatures. But also now, because we live in a culture that worships speed. Jupiter has been dethroned by Mercury, the quicksilver god of speed. The other gods on Olympus are only lesser manifestations of “instant messaging,” and when these speed-gods come into our human lives, they leave us close to death. We need time between messages. I worry, in fact, that the human body—I mean this literally—and indeed the human spirit cannot keep evolutionary pace with the new lightning-quick sleds we have built. All our lives, whether going slowly or sped up, we struggle with our desires; Francois Mauriac said we do not desire what we think we desire and Tolstoy argued that the eternal error we make is in imagining that happiness is the realization of our desires. We need time between our desires. Worshipping speed only makes us create new desires, and new desires lead to thousands of new promises, more promises than we can keep, more promises than are worthy to keep.

I ask you then, my young friends with so much promise, to teach us to love well. Teach us to keep on keeping our promises, but to keep the number of promises we make within human limits. Teach us to stop to watch the woods fill up with snow with the same downy slowness they have filled up since the beginning of human time. Amen.

Headmaster Vance Wilson, father of Evan 03, delivered this Commencemnt address on June 7, 2003 in the Washington National Cathedral.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435