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December Head of School Letter: Seasons of Darkness, Seasons of Light

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Seasons of Darkness, Seasons of Light

For twenty-five years I taught some combination of literature and environmental science courses. Whenever I taught a poetry unit, I began by having students memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

 

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   
 
My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   
 
He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   
 
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
 
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost.

 

Students balk at first.  Poetry makes them nervous (though song lyrics never do), and they claim there is no way they can memorize a poem in one night. So I have them stand in a circle, each student initially reading just one word of the poem. We say the poem aloud, and then I have each student recite one line. We do that half a dozen times. A rhythm develops, rising and falling. Sometimes, for fun, the students try to say their line as fast as they can, and we’re racing through it. Then some brave student will try the whole thing. Sometimes they stumble, sometimes they get it, but the gauntlet has been taken up and to their surprise, most master the challenge in a forty-minute class period.  Still, one or two students will find it hard until they try to recite the poem to some musical refrain they know. That usually does the trick.

The poem itself seems light and breezy. I’ll ask who the speaker is: some guy? Santa Claus? Then we’ll begin to peel the layers: why is the speaker stopping? Why is it “the darkest evening of the year?” Not the longest, but the darkest? What’s the implication there? Suddenly the poem isn’t so jaunty. Why is it so quiet in these woods? Where is everyone? And why are the woods “lovely, dark, and deep?” Why that combination of words? How do they make the reader feel? Finally, what are these promises all about? To whom are they made? Who is keeping tally? “And miles to go before I sleep?” Is the speaker simply tired and cold or is there something else at play?

I want students to internalize the poem, and so does Robert Frost.  He’s written it in a rhythm that mirrors a human heart beat: dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum. We feel the poem as we say it; it becomes part of our bodies and minds at the same time.

In many ways, this is what a GUS education does as well. We start with the child and the child’s experience at the heart of the school and move slowly outward into the world. The work of small hands informs the work of young, bright minds and vice versa. We move on to embrace the landscapes, shoreline, and people of Essex County, and then we travel even farther afield. Along the way, we help students face and grow through social and emotional as well as intellectual challenges—some of those quiet evenings Frost mentions. And we also teach them to face dark woods—some literal, some figurative—and develop the strength of promises to themselves and others, bonds that will sustain them well beyond GUS.

So when I think about these dark days leading up to the Winter Solstice, I also remember the seasons of light to come and the ways that GUS students embody all that light. They shine, they are hopeful, and they light the way for us with all their promise in the miles before them. 

Trust and go forward,

David Liebmann

Head of School