All photos/art by Heath Robbins
New Hampshire resident Donald Hall was America’s Poet Laureate for 2006-2007. His memoir, Unpacking the Boxes, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was reviewed in the May/June 2009 Yankee. An excerpt about a schoolboy’s lesson and “unintentional revenge” follows:
When we received the winter’s midterm grades, I discovered that my schoolwork had resumed its failure. My Latin dropped back to an E, together with geometry, and this time French rather than history. Again I appeared to be flunking out; I was put on academic probation, which meant that I sat in a study hall every evening. Worse, my grades expelled me from the track team. Just as I learned about my failures, my probation, and my dismissal from track, our English class met for the first time since we had submitted our free themes.
Beginning the hour, Chilson Hathaway Leonard told the best students at Exeter that Hall was flunking three courses. (We did not know one another’s grades.) He said that Hall was flunking because he wasted his time writing this drivel. He read my poems aloud to the class, and when he had completed each poem he ridiculed it. I remember only one of his remarks, innocuous enough. Concluding a poem, I wrote that no bells rang. The teacher looked up, surveyed the class, and addressed me: “You don’t ring the bell?”
He read another poem and ridiculed it; he read another. Gathered around the oblong table, the other students laughed. Bright as they were, they were adolescent males; at first they enjoyed the spectacle of my shame. As the hour continued, they quieted. Again and again, they learned that Hall was failing his studies because he devoted his hours to ludicrous endeavors — like this garbage; like this; like this…C.H.L. would not relent, and his performance filled the entire class period.
My classmates looked at the floor. I don’t know what I looked at, but I remember my rage, and the determination that anger should not show in tears. When the next assignment was given and the class finished, the students filed out. No one spoke. Two or three of my classmates, to my astonishment, patted me on the arm or the shoulder. When I returned to my room my anger flew out in tears. I determined that I would work on my poems until the blood boiled in my veins. I added to love of poetry the power of outrage and the motive of revenge.
In time, I managed to raise my grades, was graduated and admitted to Harvard. Eight years after Mr. Leonard’s class I published my first book. Exeter asked me back to read my poems, an evening performance in the chapel. By this time, I was old enough to know that publishing a book, or being praised, does not mean that you are good. Nonetheless, it was satisfying to return in triumph to a scene of defeat. Maybe the prodigal’s return would sponsor chagrin in my old teacher?
I drove into town and onto the campus with foreboding, simply because Exeter remained associated with anxiety and distress. I checked in with the chairman of the English department and learned that I would be introduced that night by Chilson Hathaway Leonard. I was dumbstruck, and asked why. The chairman told me that when I had been his student, C. H. L. had grumbled to other teachers about me and my poems. When I won Oxford’s Newdigate Prize, when my things appeared in The New Yorker, when my book received awards, his colleagues teased him. They did not know what he had done in his classroom a decade earlier, and it amused them to invite him to introduce the student he had complained of. For a moment I thought of getting back at him, on the platform, by telling the story of that class. But public retaliation is always repellent. When we met that night, Chilson Hathaway Leonard was genial and offered congratulations; we did not speak of what we both remembered. He introduced me, I read, I departed.
A decade later, I took revenge that was acceptable because I didn’t intend it. In the New York Times Book Review I wrote a short essay on Wadsworth’s poem about daffodils, suggesting the unintentional underside of the poem. At the end I asserted that if a reader felt that my reading damaged the poem, then the reader had never cared for the poem anyway, but for some postcard — daffodils blooming in the Lake Country — that an English teacher passed around in class. I remembered nothing of an English teacher and a postcard; I thought I was making up an example of pedagogic or sentimental literalness. A week later I received the postcard, a black-and-white photograph of daffodils blooming in the Lake Country, with a note from Chilson Hathaway Leonard: “I suppose your fingerprints are still on it.”