Fairy-Stories, Snowdays, and Rhyme

John Hoy visits with Northrup Frye, Toronto

Within his foundational essay “On Fairy-Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien isolates Faërie, the Perilous Realm or Shadowy Marches wherein fairies discover their being, and he describes three faces by which fairy-stories may be recognized: the Mystical, the Magical, and the Mirror (looking toward the Supernatural, Nature or Mankind). Myself being a backward and doubtful being, skeptical at the best of times, arrogant when it serves, I nevertheless allow Tolkien’s entrancing spell, releasing my own words, deploying poetic phantoms and a few robotic puzzles. At the same time, applying just a tad more tangibility on a winter’s morning (school has been cancelled), I throw another log on the fire and grip more tightly my shepherd’s plaid—the great Scottish wrap shouldered by actual shepherds and dreamers wandering into and out of antiquity. Any pastoral people off the veldt, steppes or deserts would own such a shawl formed of animal skins or local fabric, and before a later day brought dyes to such homespun these woven wraps carried simple, unfussed colors. This particular morning, the undyed black wool and white wool of the ancient “check”—checkerboard pattern—seems straight out of Faërie, since I readily drift away as I hold it, and scale seems entirely within my control. I am only echoing Tolkien as I note that effect; he has told me this morning in his essay that stories “in the fairy-tale setting…open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.”[1] But as I turn back from the stove, I find myself confronting the ghost of Robert Burns. Morning coffee helps the effect, but indeed I have slipped into spaces calloused and venerable, back to earlier ages—dust and the canyons carved by actual bookworms, flakes of paper, wood smoke and threads of wool.

I recognize fresh expression of a point I saw years before, the separate powers of blackness and whiteness. Tolkien of course put a set of colors to work in his Lord of the Rings. What is important this morning, as I ponder old stories, is the mythology or public “reality” based in hopes, expectations and convenience. The great philologist (word-origin hero) Tolkien was not sympathetic as people such as publishers found all-too-handy boxes into which they might pack his work. He certainly should be alarmed at my particular views, folded as I am in my black-and-white plaid.

The blackness of Tolkien’s Ring-Wraiths and the overly simple darkness of the Evil Side is simply too gratuitous, and it brings impact, right to today. No matter how cute his hobbits, how levelheaded his wizard, Blackness and its relatives instead might well bring a glorious color of life, warmth and enlightenment—we readers of all interests must continue to remind ourselves. Tolkien may have been naive to imagine he was simply building his own, private new cosmos, but he appears not to have cared who was in and who was left out. Of course, the native South African had been prompted by devastating world wars to narrow his sense of the world itself. I pull up short, an array of wordy powerhouses whispering in the corner, and Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ralph Ellison and Robert Burns pull me toward the traditionary True Thomas Rymour.

IMG_4080Actually, Tolkien knew Rymour well, spelling him out as “True Thomas the Rhymer”, meeting more contemporary awarenesses of 1930s Britain. Rymour (let’s call him) had the gift of prophecy in popular European folk songs and stories from the Middle or earlier centuries. A comfort to agrarian folk but co-opted by military strategists to precipitate favored battle outcomes, Rymour like Arthur or Merlin found he had other lives. As I have discovered, he continues to our later day, but in order to recognize his influence it helps to repose with a range of other stories, including those of Arthur, Merlin, Frodo and Gandalf. But the most crucial mythical personality, and another reason that I begin to lose patience with J.R.R. Tolkien no matter his genius, is a more unsettling if more undeniable presence: a striking female figure standing to the side, shouldering her own mantle of magical colors, out of Robert Burns’s poem “The Vision”: Coila.

As I note, settled in my Scottish black-and-white plaid, books and phantoms all around me, Coila was the ethereal spirit or voyaging being (aka wight) who suddenly formed in front of the poet when he was most discouraged, winter of early 1785. At that time, Burns was impoverished, desolate, cold, his own plaid was full of holes and he was ready to give up writing songs and poetry and find a paying job. Expressing something of Thomas Rymour, Coila traveled over the seas to manifest in the poet’s cottage, insisting on attention (despite rats and the winter wind) in order that the poet might maintain his central, most personal hopes, that he should trust that his rhyming ought to continue, and that he was in a marvelous place to take up a more “universal plan” which she knew was central to all art and human enterprise. She even braced her argument with mention of Scottish heroes of the past.

As I have come to discover, as James Augustus Henry Murray knew and accepted in a way that perhaps Tolkien would not (another philologist, Murray was primary editor of The Oxford English Dictionary), and others might refuse to imagine—the magical soul Coila was black.

Robert Burns held to myth because of the harsh social realities of his own day, so he had better not go admitting to be anti-British, anti-European, “anti-civilization”. Instead, the quintessential Scotsman stepped along barely known, faintly visualized Shadowy Marches (as Tolkien might identify them); that is, he kept to the edges, among the folk and their naming traditions, many of them desperately poor. As we can now begin to see more fully, visiting spirit Coila was herself a devoted being whose hope for the futures of all (that universal plan) might resonate and shine and, with the necessary help of Burns and his artistic heirs, pull European culture and history out of a long, slow moral decline around race and class, even color, and perhaps even raise up slaves of his day, oppressed African Americans and Anglo-Africans, as well as Africa itself (with some especial shout-out for those from Senegal and Gambia, home turf for the model for Coila), as she reached out and raised up one destitute poet. To understand her full meaning, and just how James A. H. Murray came to know as much as he did, we had better thank black thought leaders of later days for opening white eyes, but we must also rediscover the daring wight True Thomas Rymour and his entrancing power and foresight. Wrapped in the venerable black-and-white of my plaid I may have to pay a visit to the 1936 John Hoy of Ethiopia, to his quaintly jocular journalist creator Robinson MacLean (enthusiast for Emperor Haile Selassie) as well as to MacLean’s fascist adversary Evelyn Waugh—prescient as he spoke for Italy on the eve of World War II. The continuation—that is, details—of this story I call Seeking Phillis, or The Empress Revealed. Another log on the fire, in retirement this morning and down the road, I take them all on.

[1] “On Fairy-Stories”, Tree and Leaf, 32.

Director’s Remarks – Lowell’s Comments at the Upper School Assembly

In a show of support, the faculty and staff lined up behind Director Lowell Libby as he delivered the remarks below:

Joined by a sizable contingent of your mentors, I am going to conclude today’s assembly by reflecting on the state of our country in the aftermath of the executive order issued last Friday. Raise your hand if you know to what I am referring. (The vast majority of students raised their hands.) For those of you who don’t know about the order, it banned travel from seven majority Muslim nations to the United States.

Despite significant publicity, there is certainly much that I do not know about this executive order. I don’t know for sure what it was intended to do or how it was intended to work. I don’t know what its long term effects will be or whether or not it will ultimately be ruled legal or constitutional by the courts. There have been massive protests across the country against the ban, but I don’t know if those protests express the viewpoints of a solid majority of Americans or a just a vocal minority. I certainly don’t know what is going to happen next or how history will eventually judge this moment in time.

But I do know that by focusing on seven majority Muslim nations, intended or not, the order invariably reinforces a dangerous idea that has been growing in recent years, which is that people of Muslim faith and especially those who are immigrants are somehow collectively a threat to American safety and American values.

Such damaging stereotypes are deeply troubling because any time a group of individuals is lumped together and labeled as a threat, that is not only profoundly unfair to the innocent but it also creates a justification in the minds of some to lash out against them. We saw that happen tragically last Sunday five hours away in Quebec City when a gunman walked into a Mosque and killed six people and wounded many others while they were praying. We saw it closer to home last Friday afternoon when four Casco Bay High School students were accosted at knifepoint and subjected to racial slurs while waiting for the bus after school. It happened a couple a weeks ago to one of your Muslim classmates when she was stopped on the street by a man who insulted her religion and told her to go back from where she came. That is hate speech. That is wrong.

And when one group is singled out like that, other vulnerable populations start to worry. Right now I know that some of you are feeling afraid for your own safety and for the safety and well being of your family and friends. As a school we obviously do not control world, national, or even local events, but we do control how we respond to them. Anyone of you who is feeling vulnerable right now should know that as a community, we all bear witness to your worries and stand solidly with you. You are loved and valued. Your lives definitely do matter. You are all at home at Waynflete.

Waynflete is made whole by drawing strength from the diversity of backgrounds, beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints that we each bring to school every day. I firmly believe that our country will transcend its current state of turmoil, distress, and division when we learn as a nation to do the same.

Until that time comes, know that your faculty, administrators, and staff are ready to support you in all of the ways that we can.

Thank you for listening.

Leaning into a Difficult Conversation with Portland’s Chief of Police

As the next step in the Waynflete Dialogue Project, the Portland Chief of Police Michael Sauschuck will speak  at an Upper School assembly on Tuesday, November 15. Two students, Najma Abdullahi ‘18 and Josh Lodish ‘17, will interview him on stage about the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color across the nation and in Portland. The assembly will be followed by an advising lunch dedicated to a dialogue about the issues raised in the assembly and what Chief Sauschuck had to say about them.

The assembly will take place one week after the highly contentious presidential election, a date that many are hoping will mark a return to normalcy. Unfortunately, while the election has highlighted painful divisions in our country and likely exacerbated them, it did not create them. Instead, it revealed multiple rifts that will exist long after the election until we find the means and muster the will to heal them.

One off the many divisions that has emerged is the racial divide in our country exemplified by the tensions nationwide between the police and the communities of color. At the funeral this past summer in Dallas for the five fallen officers, President Obama characterized the divide and challenge the nation faces as a result in this way:

Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience. We turn on the TV or surf the Internet, and we can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it’s hard not to think sometimes that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.

As a citizen, I take note of the fact that the President of the United States is concerned “that the center won’t hold and that things might get worse.” As an educator, I worry about the effect of such divisions on the mindset of our young people. I wonder, with so much animosity and the threat of violence being expressed on this and too many other issues right now, how can we as adults guide the young people in our charge so that they can experience a legitimate sense of optimism that the center will indeed hold and that their futures will be bright?

The answer, it seems to me, is to engage youth as directly as possible in the real work of holding the center and creating a better future. We can do this by teaching them how, in the words of President Obama, to open our hearts to each other so that:

we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us…. With an open heart we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes… With an open heart, we can abandon the overheated rhetoric and the oversimplification that reduces whole categories of our fellow Americans not just to opponents, but to enemies.

Seeing the world through the eyes of others, recognizing the richness inherent in our different experiences, steadfastly avoiding the overheated rhetoric that turns fellow citizens into enemies – those are the goals of dialogue and describe the intent of the Waynflete Dialogue Project on which the school has embarked.

In Michael Sauschuck, we in Portland are fortunate to have a Chief of Police who wants to build bridges between law enforcement and all of the communities that his department serves. He told me that he wants to acknowledge problems, address concerns, and work collaboratively and transparently with community members towards solutions. He is especially interested in talking with young people and addressing whatever questions and concerns are on their minds. In short, in his visit to Waynflete, Chief Sauschuck is inviting our students into dialogue with him on one of the most difficult challenges of our time. In so doing, the Chief is sowing the seeds of a legitimate optimism that we can create a better future together not only in our youth but also in those of us who bear witness to the conversation.

The Waynflete Dialogue Project

The Waynflete Dialogue Project (WDP) is a focused initiative to make dialogue a keystone habit in the Upper School. It is not a single program but instead touches on many facets of the Upper School experience, in and outside of the classroom. Dialogue, at its best, is an approach to bridging differences among individuals to find common ground and extract the wisdom inherent in a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds. As such, the primary goal of dialogue is to learn and understand, not to persuade.

Developing dialogue as a keystone habit at Waynflete will enrich the education of all students by helping them to learn from differences rather than be divided by them and thus help Waynflete avoid the fate of many colleges, which are too often diverse but divided. Inclusive communities are also healthy communities in which no student should feel alone. In addition, because of its power to tap wisdom from diversity, dialogue promotes innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, and problem solving.  

By putting dialogue at the center of the student experience, the WDP will deepen learning, strengthen community bonds, and prepare our students to be catalysts of progress in a divided world. As the faculty and administration work at cultivating the capacity for dialogue in our students, we expect that the effort will cultivate that capacity in ourselves as well. We hope it will prove to be a model that other schools want to emulate.

The Genesis of the WDP

From our mission to our daily practices, Waynflete is fertile ground for teaching dialogue. Key elements that are necessary for dialogue to flourish have long been hallmarks of the Waynflete experience, including a climate of mutual respect; discussion as a primary pedagogical strategy in the classroom; a premium value placed on teaching students to think; and, thanks to the school’s ongoing commitment starting in the early 2000s, an increasingly diverse student population in the upper school.  

The latter development – the increase in student diversity – caused us to become more intentional with how we talk with each other. Alums then started telling us how important learning those skills in high school has been for them as they navigate the increasingly polarized climate they find in college. With that in mind, in the fall of 2015, we decided to get more systematic in how we cultivate dialogue. Recent events in the news worldwide as well as the 2016 presidential election have subsequently affirmed the choice to commit ourselves to dialogue.

With planning underway, in March of 2016 in partnership with Maine Seeds of Peace, we sponsored and hosted the first annual New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS). The incredible success of that event – in which nearly 300 students from 27 schools across Maine and New England converged on the Waynflete campus for an evening and a day of mostly student led workshops and dialogues on a host of topics – solidified our commitment to promoting dialogue and encouraged us to see ourselves as a catalyst for doing so in the larger community. Thanks to the leadership of Head of School Geoff Wagg and the hard work of Director of Student Affairs Lydia Maier and Development Director Sarah Plimpton, we have subsequently been awarded a grant from the EE Ford Foundation that will allow us adequate resources to support the Summit for the next three years as well as the launch of the WDP.

Early in the summer, Lydia and I started mapping out a launch plan. We defined dialogue by drafting the Waynflete Building Blocks of Dialogue, linked here. We then began to engage the faculty with the project by holding a dialogue training in July. Although that session was originally intended for Upper School faculty, interest from the other two divisions as well as the development office led us to broaden the participation. By the end of the day, the prospect of making the WDP an all-school initiative had been introduced. A month later, the Upper School faculty opening retreat focused on how best to promote dialogue, and the administrative team had discussed making the initiative school-wide.  

What Form will the WDP Take?

The WDP is now being introduced to students in a series of steps. I alluded to the goal of cultivating our capacity for dialogue in my remarks to students at the start of the year. Over the first couple of weeks of school, some of the student leaders involved with the Summit have heard more about the initiative. At a recent assembly, I explained the WDP to the entire student body and asked them to participate in an advising lunch dialogue about the concept of privilege as articulated in the MTV video. My assembly remarks are linked here. The video is linked here.

Next Thursday, October 6, Waynflete will host a hip hop performing and teaching duo, Eric and Oliver. Eric is white and grew up in Skowhegan, Maine, loving hip hop music but having virtually no contact with the people or culture that spawned the music he loved. He subsequently attended Brown University and got involved with the hip hop scene in Providence, where he met Oliver, who is Dominican and from Providence. The two have joined together not only as hip hop performers but also as diversity educators at the Wheeler School. At Waynflete, they will perform for students and then tell their story of how they bridged their differences to become artistic collaborators and close friends. That evening, with support of the Maine Arts Commission, they will host a public event in Franklin Theater entitled Hip Hop, Racial Inequality, and Cultural Appropriation: A Night of Cultural Dialogue and Hip Hop Performance.

As the year progresses, we will practice dialogue in advising lunch sessions, in our various dialogue-based activities, and in our classrooms. In addition, the Upper School team has adopted the Building Blocks as our meeting agreements, which will give us the chance to practice what we teach. In the spring, we will again co-sponsor NEYIS with Maine Seeds of Peace, which will give our students the chance to practice dialogue as facilitators and participants with students from across New England. By year’s end, we hope to well on our way to establishing dialogue as a keystone habit as well as having enjoyed the many benefits of making the effort.

A Final Thought

As noted earlier, Waynflete is fertile ground for dialogue. In fact, dialogue is so closely aligned with the school’s identity that the basic elements of dialogue as we have defined them in The Building Blocks – curiosity, caring, and courage – are also descriptors of the school’s core values. We are currently running ads extolling the importance of questions; when asked to describe Waynflete in one word, “kindness” was always former Head of School Mark Segar’s answer; current Head Geoff Wagg gave the same response when asked to summarize his philosophy in a word; and we ask students to take positive risks daily as a prerequisite to growth. As such, when we work at getting better at dialogue, we strengthen our core identity, which in turn makes us better able to learn from each other in dialogue.

It is exciting to think of where this initiative might take us.

Writing to Learn While Learning to Write

A visitor to the Waynflete campus might well wonder what is going on upon entering the Emery Building in mid-March and passing a group of students huddled in an alcove whispering with conspiratorial urgency.  The mystery would deepen as the visitor turns the corner and trips over another student who has crawled into position to spy on the apparent conspirators.  Stepping into the classroom of history teacher and department chair Alice Brock, the visitor might find a small group of students feverishly wordsmithing a document in response to a hastily scrawled message on the whiteboard that reads: “Dear France, We are truly sorry we took Alsace-Lorraine from you and we promise to be nice to you and we hope you will forgive us. Your friend, Germany.”

So what is going on?  “Learning to write,” according to Alice, among other lessons.  The students are sophomores taking Modern European History engaged in a week long role play exercise.  Alice has divided her class into groups representing European countries and assigned them the task of turning back the clock to 1914 to see if they can do better than their diplomatic predecessors by preventing the outbreak of war. The Great War unit, in addition to the role play, includes extensive document analysis and classroom discussion, culminates in a term paper in which students are asked to develop their own research based historical analysis of the primary causes of the war.

The role play is intended to deepen and make tangible the more academic and abstract study of the war.  According to Alice, “Role plays are amazingly effective in helping students to “get it” and appreciate an issue on a visceral level.  Without the role play, this topic – why the Great War happened – would remain highly abstract.  With it, students are much more invested in writing their term papers.  They understand why this topic matters and can delve into it much more deeply than they would otherwise.”

In short, Alice’s students are deeply immersed in the writing process. The Great War provides an excellent opportunity to engage students in active historical study, which in turn stimulates focused thought and in-depth writing because the causes of the war are complex, elusive, and still debated.  Thus, according to Alice, this study, especially the role play, “is empowering.  It drives home the fact that individual human beings can make a big difference and change the course of history.  In this role play, the students are rewriting history realistically and learning (or at least beginning to learn) that the concepts of “inevitability” and “forces beyond human control” need to be challenged.  In other words, they learn, I hope, that people make history, not the other way around.”

“Rewriting history” in this way illustrates a core methodology employed throughout the School: writing to learn while learning to write.  Ask any Waynflete graduate if she or he felt prepared for college.  Far more often than not, the response will be something like, “Oh yes, especially with writing.”  While Upper School English and history teachers might like to take full credit for this persistent response, in actuality, credit is due to the entire faculty because Waynflete teachers across disciplines and divisions understand the powerful interplay between writing and thinking and design their lessons accordingly.

English and foreign language teachers routinely use writing as a tool to hone skills of literary analysis by using literary analysis as the material for writing assignments.  And science teachers are doing the same when they assign and scrutinize lab reports.  A well written lab report is the product of sound scientific thought, while a poorly written one is likely reflects a vague or incomplete understanding of the science.  In such disparate subjects as art and math, students are asked to reflect on what and how they have learned, which again demands precision of word and thought. Such reflective writing brings students’ understanding of a concept or process or creation to a deeper level and allows teachers to better assess and guide their thinking.

Given the unique mix of serious scholarship and playfulness that permeates the School, every visitor to the Waynflete campus is potentially in for a surprise.  But some things are certain.  While the methods employed by Alice and the rest of the faculty do not always require students to go to such extremes as crawling through the hallways to spy on their peers, they do routinely inspire passions and cultivate capacities for learning and writing and so prepare our students well for any future they might encounter.