A Keeper of Other People's Dreams

HE marked papers in green ink so we would never feel "called," flagged in stoplight red. He spoke to us wisely as if we were walking across a pasture and he happened to point out a thistle that had survived the agriculture, a thing of beauty but not necessary there. He liked our faults, if they were genuine.Master Richard Guerney wore a bow tie, tweeds, and belt as a mark of formality so he could say things like, "Before Willy (Shakespeare) had the mud off his boots... ." He would turn to a guest at his table in the school dining room and whisper, "Do you have fears that you may cease to be?" He was fonder of the word "croak" than he was of that Wordsworth line; he was scorning his ripening age with these little idiosyncrasies. He was one of the traditions of the boarding school but fought the image of "Mr. Chips." But he was beloved that way, having passed up a headmastership to be with the boys "and not gallivant around to dinners to raise money." He had an odd paradoxical love of both the tough and the tenderhearted. He had been a fine athlete at Brown and Oxford. He still coached ice hockey, that violent, fast, and padded sport; still loved to watch baseball and shout from the sidelines in football. But somewhere along in his education and athletic honors he had discovered sympathies for the tender feelings of Percy Bysshe Shelley, golden boy of the Romantic Movement. It was this admiration of the "tough-get-going" as well as the sincerely tender that made him a king-out-of-court, even when he left the classroom. WHEN I was a freshman assigned to his dining table, he once ordered me to "Remember the Titanic!" Frightened, I asked to be excused before dessert. "Women and children first!" He liked to see boys eat. He let me go to a stickball game, a school evening tradition, but next time I was sure to drink extra glasses of milk with the cherry pie. How could you leave the presence of a man who ruled his table with good cheer and poetry and looked like King Lear, shaved up, with a bow tie? Guerney was the one master who could drill some sense about the Romantic poets into the heads of 17 year olds who considered themselves "rude, crude, unattractive, and socially unacceptable" (all the things we weren't). Who wanted to think about breezes through a model Aeolian harp or "one impulse from a vernal wood on a warm day when there was dirt sliding into first base, vacation coming up, and girls to be met at the station in New York? You had to think about math or science or a Latin declension - but this stuff? Most guys in our place would have shuffled in the door and erased as a joke the one-liners he wrote on the board: "Spring is when a young man's thoughts turn lightly to love." "Don't look at me, Smith. I didn't make up that stuff," he'd say, setting us up. When it got more flowery, reading aloud, he'd sit behind his volume, glasses on the tip of his nose. The star of football would read, "She walks in beauty, like the night... ," and Guerney would look upward like this was pretty bad stuff. But the moment one of the boys fidgeted in a back row, he'd call out suddenly: "Jones. You're a phony. Excuse me, Larson, keep reading." He got it into us by becoming a lightning rod for our scorn. He assigned quotes from the poems. For two months he said he was giving a memory test on them. The test never came. Every week we rememorized them in our rooms, the halls, spoke them in a football huddle. I still remember today, "For I have learned to look on nature as something far more deeply interfused ... ." At end of term, still no test, he said, "Now you've got money in the bank. Most of you will go to college, marry, make some money. Some guy may come along and take all that from you. Here's stuff no one can take - and it'll always draw interest." I think today of classmates who must be working in finance, on the stock exchange or a Park Avenue bank, having a dry business lunch still puzzled by (or delighted by) "Something far more deeply interfused." In my junior year, after my "Titanic" freshman experience, I had grown to accept the man not only as legend, but, skeptical as I was, as the only teacher around who made sense. He had a flair for the pen, and sometimes after a soccer match or hilarious scandal that shook the school (such as the time on Trustee's Day Coats and Ties Only" for the day, the notice said - some seniors had shown up for breakfast in only coats and ties), he would burst out of himself in a block of green-inked mostly humorous ia mbic pentameter and would post the verses on a bulletin board. I went to see him about a problem. I had fallen into the doldrums of routine, looked longingly over the hills of Connecticut to my native California, fed up with bells, ties, succinct messages on the headmaster's board: Boys shall not sit down in or near the dormitories with female guests. Benches in the headmaster's garden have been provided for such occasions. I was spending my time in the library looking at foreign "language" periodicals (and pretty girls drinking Italian "Crush"). I wanted adventure, no more subjunctives, theorems, and pimple-popping boys. I was ready to climb out of a bathroom window, forever. "Shoot," he said, when I cornered him after a class. "I'm thinking of leaving, sir. I don't want to end up as a box-type. I want to be different." "Not a bad idea, if you want to be Huck Finn. Even Mark Twain didn't hang on to that one, forever." He stood, veined ball-playing hands in coat pockets, looking out the window. "But if you ever want to be effective - for anyone besides yourself - you might try another year. You did three." "I don't know what I could do, sir, for anyone." He thumbed through book reports on his desk. They were marked in green ink, with grades on the cover. He handed me mine. I got an 81. A very high mark for the school. (You could get into Yale or Harvard then on a 78 average.) I had written on "Moby Dick," eight long pages about the regular junk: symbolism, characters, theme. I had read only two chapters of it. I had relied on a kid's movie with Gregory Peck. In green flowery letters: "This is good writing. The best I've seen all year. Perhaps there's a poet in you. Thanks for taking the time to write so profusely on this book - now read it!' I was embarrassed. Would he now call me one of the "phonies" in the class? He had caught me out. Why the high grade? "You've never really done anything, Stromholt. Never proven yourself. You need get some real knots in your soft grain." "Sir?" "Do you know what a real poet is? He has the strength to keep others' dreams - even after they're lost for years. Or mislaid." "I don't understand, sir." "It takes hard work and temperament. But that's all you've shown so far - temperament." "And school, sir?" "If you know one thing well, do one job well. And all the normal suffering involved in it - you can become a 'keeper of other people's dreams.' Your own dream will inspire them. You'll stand at the gate. School has little to do with it. But by working hard you'll discover what interests you. It's a luxury. Many people don't have it." "To suffer is a luxury?" "Things will hurt sometimes. But you'll find how to let them hurt you in the right way. So there's some depth there. Then you'll have the right to talk." "So you think I should stay on?" "Whatever, read 'Moby Dick' first. So this grade will be valid." I graduated and wrote him a letter from a university. I sent him first poems. One, in which I misspelled his name, "To Guerny I wrote, "You could have drunk a cup with Agamemnon and talked with the carpenter's boy ... ." He wrote back telling me he had wept, and that perhaps he had meant more to someone than he had even imagined. When I think of the labor I've done - the hard stuff - out of a job or cleaning a rifle in a war or helping someone with their peculiar dream of raising a family, I remember the standard Guerney set me: He was a "keeper of others' dreams" before they knew they had one or could lose it. Nah, he wouldn't like that. He was just a man whose labors had put him in touch with that "unacquired" wisdom of temperament, firsthand knowledge of who he was. A guy who liked to write up tough soccer matches in iambic pe ntameter and mark your true faults in green ink.

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