by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
The Leaves of Brown…
Fall is here, LA’s fields echo to the shouts and cheers of soccer, football and field hockey teams—the latter two being played on a new turf field—and for the third year I don’t have to drag my aging bones out of bed at 6:15 a.m. to get to that first morning assembly.
Communications Guy John Bishop and I were chatting a few days ago about what I could write for this first Shep’s Place of the season, and he said, “I’d like to know about falls.”
Assuming he wasn’t referring to the one or two embarrassing spills I’d taken over the years on a snowy Prescott House driveway heading home from a certain colleague’s New Year’s Eve gatherings, I started to think.
I couldn’t recall a lot of specific fall events, but my mind kept returning to a particular feeling: for years, at the start of every school year, I was a nervous wreck!
No one knew it except me, of course, because I had to keep up the illusion of the cool, confident, tough-but-lovable young teacher who insulted his students randomly and who thrived on their clever rejoinders (I wonder where the inspiration for this persona — mellowed with time, I like to think — came from. Might the source have been my department head, whom I quickly grew to admire for his curmudgeonly “Hope-you-flunk!” humor as much as for his professional prowess?).
Now, as the memories come flooding back — said he, avoiding clichés like the plague — I remember my first class, a French 1 section in Room 310 in the Schoolhouse. I had done a fair amount of theatre in high school, and I needed every bit of acting skill to hide the abject terror I felt as a 140-pound weakling facing a row of hulking football players, each eager, I was certain, to tear the new kid limb from limb and turn French 1 into Farce 1 for the rest of the year.
So, after introducing myself and writing my last name on the board with the stern admonition to spell it right on tests or flunk for the year, I sat down. That way, no one would see my knees knocking together.
That terror went away over a few weeks and my knees stopped shaking, but the start-of-school nerves stayed with me for many years, hidden, early in my career, by that tough-guy persona I had hung onto, probably because I looked younger than a lot of the students. I remember wishing for a few gray hairs. After all, my mom had started turning gray at 21; maybe I had her genes. No such luck. I didn’t start graying until I was 40, and then I tried covering it up with Just For Men. Don’t ever. They’ll know.
There are lots of other, more pleasant, memories of autumn at LA. I’ve mentioned my brief but undistinguished soccer-coaching career in this column before, so we won’t beat a very dead horse. Before classes and fall sports even started, though, there was, as there is today, some sort of new-student orientation. For a few years in the 1970s we had New Games, a day or two of healthy, outdoorsy “sporting” events in which there were neither winners nor losers. These games were designed to encourage camaraderie, build teamwork and sportsmanship, and, it being the seventies, to strengthen that all-important self-esteem.
One September a colleague and I were assigned a spot on the verdant banks of the cow pond. We had collected a small pile of lumber, Styrofoam pieces, rope, branches and other floatables, out of which each group of newbies was to build a raft and then to sail, Noah-like, across the mighty flood without getting wet. The building materials got soggier and the water murkier with each successive group, until eventually one kid, who was clearly not into teamwork, simply grabbed a couple of pieces of Styrofoam, waded into the pond fully clothed, and walked across.
Dripping and festooned with aquatic plant life, he emerged on the distant shore waving the Styrofoam. When we asked him why he had done that, he replied that he thought the goal of the game was to take all that stuff to the other side, adding that the whole exercise was stupid.
Debriefing our morning the next day, we had to agree with the kid, since no one made it across in anything close to a dry state. And then there were the waterborne parasites that may have been fruitful in the cow pond – why hadn't we thought about those? Some poor freshman might be afflicted and it would be our fault.
Nothing happened, everyone was clean and dry for class the next morning, and as far as I know, no one has walked into the cow pond since.
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