Friday, March 23, 2012



It was good to hear from you the other day, however briefly. Even if you only have time for an emailed smile, I will smile back.

I was going to mention this earlier, but--wait, that makes it sound like a big deal, doesn't it? It isn't, not particularly, just a thought that popped into my head to share, and then popped out again before I got the chance--until now, obviously.

What popped into my mind was daffodils. You know the new bicycle shelter on campus? I saw it the other week, all covered with snow. I'd never seen it completed before, but I helped dig one of the post holes, and I felt mildly pleased to see part of my story embodied that way in the bones of the school.

I used to have a similar reaction on the campus of my boarding school. The headmaster (and that's what he called himself, not his real title, which was executive director) had some notion that by scheduling manual labor into the school day, he would give us something to be proud of. In practice I think most of the students simply felt put-upon, and the fact that kids who got in trouble had to do more such work did not help. There was always a subtle difference between the way the headmaster thought the school worked and how it actually worked. But I liked the labor, and once I heard him suggest that I should, I did take some pride in walking around campus seeing bushes I had trimmed or things I had moved or cleaned or painted....

It was a different feeling from how I feel about jobs I've actually had some ongoing responsibility for--even when those jobs were on the boarding school campus. For a while I was on a student grounds keeping team, and I helped clean and prune and water for months on end. I liked that work, too, and took pride in it, as I've liked and taken pride in doing things with my hands ever since. I like being responsible for the upkeep of something. I like, especially, having an employee's access and connection to a garden, a restaurant, a forest, a canyon, the chance to really interact with a place that most people are only allowed to visit.

Central to that other feeling is, I think, a sense of control or autonomy; I am responsible for x,y, and z, and within the limits of that responsibility, I can help make something happen. Central, too, is the sense of importance, not in an egotistic sense, but knowing that this thing needs to be done; I am useful.

The work crews we usually had at boarding school contained neither autonomy nor importance. If we hadn't done the work, the paid maintenance crew would have done it. Since we worked inefficiently, and since we had to be supervised by one or more faculty members as we worked, our free labor may have cost the school more then just having the staff do it....And of course, we had no choice in the matter at all. We could neither decline our work crew duties nor volunteer for additional work, and we had no voice in deciding what our task would be or when or why. Everything at that school was either forbidden or mandatory, always. So it was a small, almost manufactured kind of pride that could be had as a result.

For entirely different reasons, I felt the same way about the bike shelter at grad school. Again, I had no say or control over the project as a whole--no responsibility for the work, and no real ownership of the project. I am not sure I would have selected the bike shelter as the best use of resources, for one, and for another, the machine standing by to finish the post-holes after we got tired or bored was an obvious testament to the pointlessness of our labor. A dozen volunteers worked for an hour or two to save a machine with a paid operator maybe two minutes.

And yet, just as I would always pass the forsythia that I helped prune and think Oo! I saw that bike shelter and though Oo! I did that!

The forsythia, of course, has now either been pruned many times since, or it has grown out into a leafy, looping sprazil, or it has died. It was a temporary form of Oo! But the daffodils may be different.

The campus of my boarding school was on a couple of acres of what had once been a horse farm, and the property sloped slowly down from the foot of a ridge behind campus to the shore of a lake about a half a mile in front of the gate. The slope had clearly been flattened in two places, once underneath the old mansion where the offices and some of the dorms were, and once underneath nothing but the sky. I suppose the secondary flattening must once have supported the stables, or perhaps an earlier iteration of the mansion. We used it as an occasional athletic field. But the far corner of the flat field was some ten or fifteen feet above where the sloping ground was supposed to be, so there was this steep, square, grassy cliff there we called the Edge of the World. It was a good place for rolling down. Rolling off the Edge of the World was actually a scheduled dorm activity sometimes.

A few years into my stay as a student there, I was on a work crew assigned to plant daffodils along the base of the Edge of the World. I thought it was a bad spot for a flower bed, as the flowers would interfere with rolling for part of the year, but my opinion was not requested in the matter, so I helped plant the bulbs. They came up every year after that, at least as long as I was at the school.

I was not generally at liberty to go smell the daffodils, or otherwise check on them--as I mentioned, everything was either against the rules or mandatory there, and whatever else I may have received while I was at school, liberty wasn't available. But I could see them from the main driveway of the school, where I sometimes had occasion to walk. The driveway was lined by huge, old sugar maples, and I remember walking down between their wrinkled rows, between the new spring leaves opening like small, green umbrellas, and looking out and seeing the daffodils blooming there by the Edge of the World. Daffodils I planted, part of the bones of the school for years, because of me.

The school is closed now, the campus sold. I don't know what has become of it. It's part of my story, but I don't know to what extent I was ever able to add to the school's story, and the school itself is no longer telling its story, being dead as an institution. The school itself is no longer listening, can no longer hear.

But I wonder whether the daffodils still bloom there in the spring.

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