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High School Reflections

 

Eleventh Grade Lasts a Lifetime
(Published in the PLUS Section of The Republican, February 22, 2012)

So what do you remember about High School?

The other students, of course. Who was athletic? Who was musical? Who was a "star" student? Who edited the yearbook? Who was loudest in class? Who got into trouble? Who seemed most likely to "succeed?" Who you liked? Who intimidated you?

And the teachers. The best (and the worst) are hard to forget.

And the textbooks! Yes, sometimes the textbooks carry some memories.

Actually, in my high school you might really remember the textbooks, because everyone used the same textbooks. For whatever reason, just about everybody took the exact same courses. Hardly any electives. So all those very different kinds of students most definitely shared at least one commonality – the textbooks.

All this comes to mind because on a recent trip home to Toronto my sister-in-law came across two classic Toronto high school textbooks: the basic introduction to Latin that everyone in my school had to endure and the English reading book that everyone in 11th grade had to read.

What a treat to see the two books again after a hiatus of many decades.

The Latin one looks pretty much as I remember it. A yellow cover with a picture of a Roman villa on it. The first chapter is also pretty much what I remember.

Interestingly, as I looked through the rest of the book’s 82 (!) chapters, I also discovered that I had remembered very little of the Latin I studied.

But I did remember the beginning: the first Latin verbs…to carry, to plough, to praise, show, and to love. In a moment I even remembered how to conjugate the simple verbs: amo, amas, amat…I love, you love, he/she loves…

I didn’t like Latin so I wasn’t interested in reading much more of the textbook, but I did like English and that’s why I wanted to see what that 11th grade textbook contained. To my surprise, it contained maybe 50 short pieces of prose – only one of which I could remember at all.

Like the Latin text, it was the first essay in the English text that I remembered. It was the acceptance speech given by William Faulkner when he won the Novel Prize for Literature in 1950. (A long, long time ago.)

Here’s the question: Why would I remember that speech?

Perhaps because it was the way we began the whole year with Mr. Huey, a very dapper and thoughtful English teacher that year.

Or, upon reflection, I think I remember the text because it struck a particular chord in my teenage heart and soul. A few years later I was destined to read Elie Wiesel. During college, I encountered Albert Camus. Years later, I would learn about the biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah. Each of these writers was also going to contend with the dilemma that drew Faulkner’s attention and, I now realize, also meant so very much to me:

What are the prospects for humanity? Have we got a chance to survive? Are we worthy of survival? Is there any reason not to despair of humanity and the future?

Those are big questions for 11th grade students, but the Faulkner text was there in our textbook to present them. They touched me then, which is why I realize they seemed so familiar when I opened that English text book a few weeks ago.

Here is Faulkner’s proclamation from the stage of Stockholm in 1950. After all these years, I think it still reads so very well. What’s more, after all these years, I actually believe what Faulkner wrote. I guess it turns out that when we least expect it (even in High School), we sometimes learn something that matters for a lifetime.

"I believe that man will not only endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

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