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The Water is Wide

July 30, 2010

“It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards…

 –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

 

The Water is Wide

 

            ♪♫  “The water is wide, I can not get o’er; and neither have I…”

“No, not yet.  Let’s try the last two bars again.”

            ♪♫  “… and neither have I…”

            “I’m afraid if you breathe there, the rest of your phrase won’t make any sense.  Here.  Listen to me play it the way you are singing it once… ♪♫  The water is wide, I can not get o’er; and Neither have I… but the thought doesn’t end there.  The thought is “and neither have I wings to fly”.  Listen again.  ♪♫  You have to hold that phrase just a while longer.  Hold it the extra eight beats and you will have ‘wings to fly’.

            Wings to Fly!

            Growing up in a small rural Maine town wasn’t always easy.  Sure, there were few of the distractions that kids in the larger cities experienced.  And, it certainly cost less to be a kid in the middle of no where, since there wasn’t anything to spend money on in the first place.  What was most difficult, more importantly, was that overwhelming sense of isolation that one could feel at times.  I could be out of school on a field trip, at some music festival or some ‘boys’ state’ event, surrounded by a few hundred of my peers from across the state, and still feel like I was absolutely the only one there.  Terrifying.

Part of the problem was that I was the proverbial “smart kid” in my class growing up.  Learning had always been very easy for me, and it wasn’t popular to be smart and capable.    I didn’t have to work at anything very long before I had mastered it, and my grades reflected it.  In fact, I didn’t have to work hard for any of the accolades which I received, but I did anyway.  I had to.  I was so bored and lonely that if I hadn’t worked as hard as I did on my school work, I am quite convinced I would have gone mad.

I could do just about anything including leading a club to try new ideas, even if it meant confronting the school board myself to get the ‘job’ done.  That bothered those kids who didn’t have that facility, and so many of them picked on me relentlessly.  I slowly and assuredly worked as tirelessly at building up a protective emotional wall around myself as I did my scholastic endeavors.  And I was good at that too.  Too good.  More hurtful yet were those teachers and administrators who sometimes joined those kids in their taunts, actively encouraging me to be less than I knew I was capable because then, and only then, would I ‘fit in’ better.  Fit in!  I wanted out.

Before I entered high school, I had been encouraged by the Guidance Counselor, Mr. Cowie, to plan a schedule that didn’t suit me very well.  Mrs. Campbell, who I had known for years from Sunday school, was in charge of the study hall where I had been placed during my ‘free period’, that time in my schedule that Mr. Cowie assured me I would need so as to be able to get my homework done.  Mrs. Campbell was a wonderful woman, but one could sense that she was tired of her job.  “If you don’t settle down, I am going to send you to the office so fast…” she threatened frequently.  I had only been in her study hall two days when I broke.  I simply snapped.  Her words rang in my ears.  “… Send you to the office so fast… Send you to the office so fast…”  I brazenly inquired, “Mrs. Campbell, just how long would it take to get to the office?”  Darned if she didn’t give me the chance to find out!

Off down the hall from the cafeteria I trod, ending my short journey in front of Mrs. Wiggin, the principal’s secretary.  She was another woman who I had known from church.  I explained to her what had happened, and she marched me in to introduce me to someone who I would grow to admire and love.

Mrs. K. was the secretary for the Guidance Counselor at Central High School.  She was amiable and kind, and clearly interested in helping young people reach their potential and beyond.  As Mrs. Wiggin explained that perhaps, for poor Mrs. Campbell’s sake, it would be best if I had another class to take rather than be in study hall, Mrs. K. set herself to the task of quickly browsing the school’s schedule.  “Here we go.  Here is something you can do fifth period!”

As fate would have it, Mr. Cowie had moved up from the middle school to be the new counselor at the high school that year.  His assistant, Mrs. Beiser, a rather oxen-like woman in both stature and personality, stood behind him, looking at me disapprovingly.  “Another class, indeed!” she huffed before going in to her little office.

As Mr. Cowie explained to me again why study hall was going to be important to me, I stood my ground and affirmed that my homework for all of my classes was generally done before I even got out of the classroom.  Mrs. K. intervened on my behalf, and I knew I had made a friend.  “Perhaps, we should let James try Mr. Thomas’ history class and see.  If he isn’t able to keep up, he could always drop the course and go back to study hall.”  I could have leaned over her desk and kissed her.

Mrs. K. had truly proven to be a blessing.  She stood by me not just that day, but so many others.

Mrs. Beiser insisted as I planned for my sophomore year that I would be happier if I were to go to the vocational school program offered in Bangor.  “Vocational school?  Really!?  Give me five minutes under the hood of your car, and I will prove to you that I have no business in voc school!” I retorted.  Mrs. K. gave a gentle snicker as I scratched out the schedule Mrs. Beiser had wanted me to have and I handed back one I thought would be more to my liking.  What would a genuine book worm like myself have done at the voc school?  Honestly??  Mrs. K. typed the schedule I requested in to the computer and handed me a copy, smiling.

Mrs. K. stood by me too that day that Mr. Johnson, a saintly math teacher who had also taught my mother in school, marched me into Mr. Cowie’s office and insisted that his geometry class was no place for me.  Against the Guidance Counselor’s finer opinions, it was Mrs. K. who said, “I am sure Mr. Trusz would willingly give up his free period to work with James.”  And he did.

It was Mrs. K. who listened to me that fall when I had become a senior at the school and was getting ready to apply for college.  I had visited Middlebury College in Vermont with my parents that summer and knew in my heart that I was MEANT to be in Vermont to study next.  Beautiful campus.  Rigorous program in foreign languages, and a dorm which looked like a French chateau.  Heaven.  I had, with the encouragement of the Upward Bound staff at the University, filled out an “early decision” application for that college of my dreams, and brought it in to the Guidance office to have Mr. Cowie fill out his part.  I was destined to be the class Valedictorian; no one disputed that.  I had earned it.  And yet, rather than being encouraging and hopeful, Mr. Cowie disappears into his office and comes back out with a file in his hand.  He encouraged me to take a seat at the long table to the left of Mrs. K.’s desk.  He then made it known that he feared I was going to apply early decision; that he feared that even if I got in to Middlebury that I wouldn’t be able to compete; that he felt it best if I just sign the University of Maine application which he had prepared on my behalf (up to and including writing the entrance essays for me!).  Mr. Cowie had the audacity to tell me to my face that he just didn’t think, despite my talent and my efforts in school, both academically and socially, that I would never really cut it in life.  He honestly expected me to live DOWN to his expectations; I couldn’t have been more hurt.  Or more angry–that sort of anger which still boils some twenty years after the fact.  Yes, it was Mrs. K. who listened to me after I flatly refused to sign his UMO application, demanding, “My god, Mr. Cowie, if I can’t make it in a real college, which of the kids in my class do you think can?!”

            Mrs. K. was there for me for more than moral support over the years.  We became, through our shared love of music, friends too.  With my gratitude, I praise the school’s two music teachers, Mrs. Bouchard and Mrs. Farnham, who encouraged me to excel in music.  I played both the trumpet and the baritone horn, and sometimes even the Sousaphone, for Mrs. Farnham.  I sang in the chorus for Mrs. Bouchard.  Together, they said that the All-State Music Festival was the place for me.

            Each fall during my four years of high school, Mrs. K. sacrificed some of her personal time to help me achieve a personal best in music.  Evenings after school, she and I worked together in the music room.  Mrs. K. would take her seat at the school’s old piano which had been propped up on a new set of wheels, themselves quite securely fastened to a steel frame.  I would take my spot just to the front of the old upright, and sing.

            “I think if you were to stand up straighter, not only would your quality of sound improve, but you would also project confidence.  You would look like someone who is a great singer.  Stand up.  Be proud of yourself and all that you’ve done.”

            And straighter I stand to this day.

            “The music is only part of what is on the page there, James” she asserted in 1987 as we rehearsed my audition piece, Dvorak’s By the Waters of Babylon.  “It’s a psalm.  The people in the song are praying to God to deliver them from the people who would mock them and make them sing songs of joy when they are miserable, songs of hope when no one has any faith in them.”

            And pray that night for deliverance I did too.

            “It’s not our National Anthem for nothing,” she assured me as we rehearsed for an all school assembly.  “It’s our nation’s hymn because it is a song that helps us to remember that no matter how battered and torn by others we feel, just our mere presence among others is important.  It’s a song for all of us because of the numerous opportunities that are out there if you just summon up the courage and go looking for them.”

            Music speaks to you, if you’ll listen.

            As I left school, Mrs. K. presented me with a gift.  She had bought for me large blue album to put mementos in, things I had collected from my years at CHS.  She said that it was a book where I could record all the good things that had happened there in the four years.  “Try it,” she said.  “There are more than you think.”  With that, I got a hug and a kiss, and a card which was signed, “Lovingly, Lucille”.  I pasted the card in to the front of the album, which I look at whenever I am home on vacation.

            My friend, Lucille.  Mrs. K.  From my friend, I learned to do something for others just because you have it within your power to do so.  Sing.  Build a home where love abounds.  Sing.  Look for qualities in others which you hope are still within yourself, for something of which you are still capable, regardless of where you live out your life, regardless of your life’s occupation.  Sing.  My friend Lucille is a touchstone and her existence means that these qualities of honesty and authenticity are still among us.  Love.

“…but the thought doesn’t end there,” my friend Mrs. K. repeated as she adjured  me to try again and harder.  “The thought is “and neither have I wings to fly”.  Listen again.  ♪♫  Hold that phrase the extra eight beats and you will have ‘wings to fly’!”

Words to live by.

The water is wide, I cannot get oer;

And neither have I wings to fly;

Give me a boat that can carry two,

And both shall row, my love and I.

I leaned my back against an oak;

I thought it was a trusty tree,

But first it swayed, and then it broke,

And so my false love did unto me.

Oh, love is handsome, and love is fine;

And love’s a jewel when first it is new,

But love grows old, and waxes cold

And fades away like the morning dew

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mrs. K. permalink*
    July 30, 2010 4:39 am

    What a pleasant surprise! You are one of my fondest memories of my years at MSAD 64. I loved working with you during those times and always hoped that you would one day find your way through music. You were always so
    compassionate and determined to do your very best, not only as a student but as a person. I am hoping that you have found happiness.

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