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Writing to Learn Rc

Writing to Learn Rc


Chapter One l . Hermes and the Periodic Table As a boy I spent four years at a boarding school in Massachusetts called Deerfield Academy that had two legends attached to it. The first was its headmaster, Frank L. Boyden. When he was a young man just out of college, in 1902, he accepted a position that only a teacher desperate for a first job might have taken: running a moribund academy in the tiny village of Deerfield. The school had so few boys that the new headmaster had to play on the football and baseball teams himself. By the time I got there, in the mid-1930s, Frank Boyden had built Deerfield into one of the best secondary schools in the country, and when he retired, in 1968, his place in American education secure, he had been headmaster for sixty-six years. During all those years he also coached the football, basketball and baseball teams, continuing as an octogenarian to rap out sharp grounders for infield practice before every game. His favorite baseball strategy was the squeeze play–a mark, perhaps, of his Yankee practicality. He was an unusually small man with a plain New England face, slicked-down black hair, and metal-rimmed glasses; nobody would have noticed him in a crowd or picked him out as a leader. But three generations of boys were shaped for life by his values, and I was one of them. The second legend was his wife, Helen Childs Boyden. A tall, bony woman with a face even plainer than her husband’s, she wore her black hair tied in a bun and she peered out at the world through thick glasses, triumphing over eyesight so bad that it would have immobilized a person of weaker will. Helen Childs had also come to Deerfield as a young teacher, fresh out of SmithCollege with a science degree. She married Frank Boyden in 1907 and for more than sixty years was a strengthening presence in his life and in the life of the school. She was best known, however, for her senior course in chemistry. The legend was that she could teach chemistry to anybody. As it turned out, she couldn’t teach it to me. The fault was undoubtedly mine. I’m sure I didn’t want to learn chemistry. Probably I had also persuaded myself that I couldn’t learn chemistry, or any of the hard sciences. Those subjects were for all those people who had an aptitude for them–the ones who carried a slide rule and could take a radio apart. I was a liberal arts snob, illiterate about the physical world I lived in, incurious about how things worked. The courses I felt most comfortable with were English and languages, and in my extracurricular hours I indulged my other two loves–playing baseball and writing for the school newspaper. I did what came easiest and avoided what I might not be able to do well. My favorite language was Latin. It transported me back to the classical world, and yet it was anything but dead-thousands of its roots were alive and well in English; in fact, no subject has been more useful to me as a writer and an editor. I took Latin for three years at
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