Five primary lessons from my secondary school
I graduated from high school 50 years ago. Prior to arriving at Collegiate School, I was a very unhappy 15-year-old. I had just spent ninth grade at a boarding school far from the vibrant streets of New York City. I'd missed the city and disliked dormitory life and being at school seven days a week.
At times, children must be firm with their parents. I told my mother that I would not return to boarding school under any circumstances. She began to look at day schools in the city.
My first encounter at my new school was with headmaster Wilson Parkhill who, by his kindness and warmth, immediately made me feel welcome. Next I met my 20 new 10th-grade classmates, a number of whom were dropouts from boarding school. They made me feel doubly welcome.
I learned five lifelong lessons there.
First, a love of literature, imparted to me by Henry Adams, the English teacher.
In this regard, I think of John Keats at age 21. One evening a close friend introduced him to Homer through a translation written by Elizabethan poet and playwright George Chapman.
After returning late to his lodgings, Keats sat down and wrote, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," the earliest of his great sonnets.
The closing lines convey the excitement of discovery: an astronomer who comes upon a new planet; an explorer who discovers an ocean.
Here Keats celebrates his discovery of Homer:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
When I first read the poem as a student, I felt myself a co-celebrant with Keats. My discovery was the world of literature.
Second, a love of writing. Writing gives me enormous pleasure. My annual income from writing rarely exceeds $2,500. Fortunately, none of the pleasure is taxable. Rent is met from another source. (How wise I was to enroll in law school.)
Third, community service. "Our days with service fill," we sang at school, a line from the Collegiate "Alma Mater." Opportunities for service abound in New York, a city of 321 square miles. More than 8 million people from 180 lands, live here.
Fourth, a love of sports. At school I played on the basketball, soccer, and tennis teams. I continue to participate in sports. I do so because games are fun and - like the ancient Greeks - I strive for variety in my daily life: challenging the mind through work and the body through physical exertion, and enriching the spirit through literature, music, and art.
Each day as a student, I would pass the 18th-century school clock by the stairway on the second floor. These words appear on the wooden cabinet below the clock's face: Improve the Flying Moments.
And that is the fifth lifelong lesson I learned.