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ISSUE:  Autumn 1991

Waiting for me each August when Vicki and the children and I return to Storrs from Nova Scotia is a bag of mail. Because I had been identified as the inspiration for the John Keating character in the movie Dead Poets Society, the mail was more colorful than usual when we returned in August 1989. From Florida a cousin sent a clipping from his local paper. Under “Names and Faces” appeared three people: Dan Quayle to the left, Billy Graham to the right, and in the middle, me. “Praise God, teaching, and the Republican Party,” Vicki said when she looked at the pictures. From Indiana a man wrote and described the death of his only son from leukemia, after which he concluded, “May the good Lord continue to bless you and yours and wrap his arms around each of you and give you good health!” A woman who babysat me when I was young said that her children saw her “in a different light” after learning that she knew me. “Their old dull predictable Mother and Grandmother knew somebody of importance,” she wrote; “I want to thank you for the pedestal they put me on, if only for a brief time.” From Missouri a boy sent cards to be autographed for Judy, Jason, and Kelly. After asking my favorite hobbies, he ended, saying, “I hope that you are living your life to its fullest and are enjoying personal prosperity.”

Living life to the fullest, seizing the day and gathering rosebuds as John Keating put it in Dead Poets Society, is all right for children, most of whom know little about flowers, daffodils, or roses, much less skunk cabbage. Keating’s prescription for living, however, would not do for me. I am too old to live anywhere near the fullest; and if I tried to seize but an hour, I would be swept away by a cardiovascular storm, carried off to that land where there is no night or day, only eternity, and where all the roses are white lilies. Still, as I held the mail, I thought that someone, if not the Lord, had wrapped his arms around my family, giving Vicki and the children good health. For that and for the letters themselves I was thankful. Although they occasionally upset me, the letters enriched the day, and reading them resembled reading a collection of stories, not a collection contrived to educate or reflect social need, but an honest collection, filled with voices, humane and true. Of course not all my correspondents were genial or even pleasant. Not realizing that “personal prosperity” had eluded generations of Pickerings and assuming that I had financial connections with Dead Poets Society and as a result had a bundle of cash in hand, they sent letters bristling with chaffy anger. From Canada “The Poorest-Humblest-Divine Magistrate King of All Mankind” or, as he also called himself “The Supreme Ruler of the Sacred Planet Earth” sent a four-page, photocopied letter. “O You Intellectually and Morally Dishonest Thug of Humanity,” the Ruler began mildly before working himself into the warm spirit of criticism and accusing me of being a degenerated, dehumanized product of “alcoholics, prostitutes, whores, homosexuals, lesbians, satans, sinners, and power-hungry criminals.” Eventually the Ruler demanded that I hand over all my worldly goods to him to be distributed “amongst the poorest of this Sacred Planet Spaceship Earth.”

The day after reading the mail I walked to my favorite August spot in Storrs: the rough land surrounding Unnamed Pond, just off Route 195 near the campus police station. As I walked I forgot not only the mail but also my talk for convocation. Earlier in the summer the university asked me to give the traditional speech welcoming freshmen and setting the mood for the new school year. Being invited to give the talk disturbed me. Last year’s speaker had won a Nobel prize, and I was asked to speak, not because I had achieved anything significant, but because of my identification with Dead Poets Society. Convocation was two weeks away, and feeling fraudulent and a little depressed, I had not written a word. By distracting me from myself, a few hours at the pond, I thought, would restore my spirits. Like a bumblebee in a spring garden, my pencil, I hoped, would then lumber across pages, gathering words like pollen. As I walked around the pond, I quickly strolled beyond mood, and the flowers rumpled together in my mind like a comfortable crazy quilt of colors and names. Black-eyed Susan; daisy fleabane; horseweed bushy and green; dried shafts of red dock; vervain; thistles seeds floating on the air in ice slivers; pile wort; willow herb; and then Joe-pye weed, wild carrot pushing through the blossoms, white against purple and making me think of Victorian wallpaper and long, dark halls. About the flowers butterflies pitched and waved—whites and sulphurs, dark Eastern swallowtails, and then monarchs and viceroys, orange napkins shredded into wings at a child’s birthday party. Over everything hung dragonflies, old fashioned and bright as candy canes on Christmas trees.

Instead of hours, I spent days at the pond, eating blackberries and unripe fox grapes for lunch and chewing mint and the leaves of lance-leaved goldenrod. The longer I stayed the more I saw and the less I worried about convocation. Life around the pond was short. Stuck between the petals of sunflowers were the dried husks of bees, looking like small, hairy clumps of mud. One morning a robber fly heaved heavily by, wavering under the weight of a white butterfly. After blooming, the blossoms of wild carrot folded upward and then curved in on themselves, forming domed clumps resembling tall, gray wigs. Small insects hid from predators in the carrot; the wigs, though, were not completely safe; in many crab spiders crouched open-armed. On goldenrod lurked orange and black ambush bugs, their front legs seemingly as thick as weightlifters’ forearms. Herds of luminous orange aphids fed on milkweed. The caterpillars of monarch butterflies eat milkweed also, in the process absorbing toxins from the leaves and thus making themselves “distasteful” to many predators. As the bright color of the caterpillars supposedly warned birds off, so, too, perhaps, the color of the aphids frightened predators away—or so I thought until I saw a small parasitic wasp inserting its eggs into the aphids.

The struggle to live never ended. One day I found some gray and white caterpillars curled on the tops of leaves and disguised as bird droppings. When I showed them to Eliza, my four year old, she pushed two or three about with her index finger and then said, “Daddy, maybe we are all caterpillars crawling on leaves.” Eliza’s response startled me, and I wanted to mull it over, so I suggested we walk down the hill past the dairy barn to the creamery and get ice cream cones. On the way, I think I may have had one or two interesting thoughts, but now I have forgotten them. What I remember is the ice cream. Eliza had Oreo and I had strawberry cheesecake, and the girl who waited on us gave Eliza more than she gave me. That night at home I wrote my convocation speech in four and a half hours, and although soldier beetles and Carolina grasshoppers may have stopped my pencil once or twice, I didn’t fritter away a moment in doubt.

At the pond one day I saw a honeybee so busy digging pollen out of wild mint that he flew into the web of a black and yellow argiope. Although the bee fluttered and turned desperately, he was caught fast. Like the bee I, too, had tumbled into a web, not that of a spider, though, but that of publicity. No matter how I twisted, publicity would spin words about my life, packaging me for consumption. The university advertised my speech, hanging posters in all its buildings, and along Route 195 at the entrances of the campus placing sandwich boards inviting people to “Meet Sam Pickering, the teacher who inspired Dead Poets Society.” In the past attendance at convocation had been low, and the publicity reassured me, for one of my greatest fears was that no one or maybe only 22 people would come. I shouldn’t have worried; 1400 or 1500 people attended convocation, the largest number ever. My talk itself was old-fashioned, drawing sustenance, I want to think, from the land around Unnamed Pond. I talked about community, first that in Storrs at the university and then that of the past, present, and future. I urged students to wander intellectually and physically. “Cultivate your curiosity,” I said, “and develop interests which will enrich your long living.” I told them to go to the pond near the police station where the goldenrod was blooming and the milkweed bugs misbehaving. My talk was sappy and rambling, cluttered with stories about the children and our humorous little doings and then words like responsibility, decency, duty, modesty, and compassion. I said nothing original or profound and trotted out old sway-backed advice, generalities which I thought had cushioned the paths I trod. “Seize the chance to broaden your sympathies and understanding here,” I said; “escape the self. Learn about the past so you can understand the present and perhaps have some small influence on a future. Learn not so you become weakly tolerant. But learn so you can grow beyond abstract toleration and become that better thing: the kind and helpful person, the decent son or daughter, the gentle and loving mother or father. I want you to become intelligent enough to say “I was wrong.” I want you to become big enough to say “I’m sorry.”“

At the end of my talk the audience stood and applauded, a convention of the occasion, I assumed, for I had never gone to convocation before. I felt wonderfully relieved. After attending a brief reception in the basement of the auditorium, I could bury Dead Poets Society. In the future my speeches would be domestic not public, around the kitchen table not from a stage, about picking up toys and behavior on the schoolbus, not about sensibility and community. I was mistaken. In the basement a line of students waited for me to autograph their programs for the convocation. Although I felt foolish, I signed all the programs. Better, I thought, for me to do something silly than embarrass innocent children. In the four months after convocation I signed my name hundreds of times: on books, programs, notebooks, dollar bills, and shirtsleeves. When a young woman asked me to sign a napkin and I told her that I had never autographed a napkin before, she asked me to write, “This is the first napkin I have ever signed.” I did as she directed. My discomfort at autographing programs and napkins is but a small thing, and rather than make another person feel foolish, I suffer my own foolishness gladly.

Publicity changes a person, making the public me, at least, more accommodating. At the reception television reporters interviewed me for the local news. The form of the newscast determines the questions. Because stations could devote only seconds to the convocation, the reporters focused not on idea but personality. Never having been interviewed for television before, I was naive and at first talked about teaching, insisting that I was an ordinary instructor, simply one among many successful teachers at the university. On being asked for the fourth time, however, what made me stand out, I suddenly realized the reporters wanted colorful fiction, not dull truth. “Oh, hell,” I thought; “if it’s character they want, they can have it.” I wasn’t sure I stood out in a crowd, I began, but I got bored easily and sometimes did things to pass the time. “This past summer in Nova Scotia,” I recounted, “I bought my eight year old son Francis a new bathing suit. To pay for the suit I waited in a line. To entertain myself I put the bathing suit on my head, pulling it down tightly over my ears. At first, people in the line glanced furtively at me and the trunks and then quickly looked away. Because the line was long, however, they could not escape curiosity. Finally a woman in front of me turned around and said, almost resentfully and in exasperation, “Do you always wear your bathing suit on your head?” “Of course,” I answered, puffing up, “of course, where do you expect me to wear it? On my behind?” In telling the story to the reporters I am afraid that when I said behind I looked like a toad pushing my head forward, dropping my chin, and saying the word so that the hind rolled about the room and bounced off the walls in deep resonant echo. That night my behind, not the convocation, was news. Indeed I sometimes think my bottom the most famous in Connecticut. Throughout the fall and early winter the clip of the convocation interview has been used as a filler when the Celtics don’t play or the weatherman isn’t able to dish up a rich broth of tropical depressions, tornados, and hurricanes.

That was my only appearance on television. Soon after the convocation, Channel Three in Hartford asked me to appear on a show called Live at Five. In between essays and too tired for a walk, I agreed to appear. Things, however, did not work out. I do not drive much, and I got lost in traffic, ending in the Ramada Hotel on East River Drive. When I called the station and said I was returning to Storrs unless someone fetched me, the producer sent a photographer for me. Initially the station seemed almost as rough as the land around Unnamed Pond, and I enjoyed wandering about. The main room was broken into small cubicles; blue dividers separated desks; behind the desks stood red chairs. Telephones rang like crickets, and print machines clacked and chattered like willets disturbed on a nest. On a shelf over a producer’s desk was a stack of books: Super Joy, How to Put the Love Back into Making Love, Win the Food Fight, Don’t Blame Mother, and You Only Get Married for the First Time Once. Like the honks of geese shouts suddenly rang out, “Cut the bullshit,” “Give me ten seconds of the cops going in,” and “I just called the neurosurgery department. Who’s the brain doc?” When I introduced myself to an announcer and asked her name, she exclaimed, “You don’t know me! You must be kidding!” I rarely watch television, not because I disapprove of it but because I had rather spend my free hours playing with the children or roaming over the university farm. Still, I felt guilty, and if I could have fashioned a covering lie and assured the woman I knew her well and intimately I would have done so. The time at the station was interesting, and when a tennis match ran longer than expected and “bumped” me off the air, I wasn’t bothered. Still, despite several calls I have refused to return. One glimpse of the station was enough; the great golden digger wasp dead in a cream pitcher on my desk simply interests me more than television.

In part, I have avoided television because most shows celebrate character at the expense of idea or even truth. Of course news articles usually do the same. As in television, structure or format determines content. In 500 or a 1,000 words ranging deeply or probing complexity is almost impossible. To be successful an article must attract readers, and drawing readers to a piece about an unknown like me forces the writer to rely on catchy phrase or colorful tale, verbal equivalents of the bathing suit on the head. After convocation several reporters interviewed me by the telephone. For 50 minutes I talked to a reporter from Memphis about reading and teaching. When his article appeared, it was mostly seasoning, the pepper and salt of my offhand remarks, my saying, for example, that the last time I was in Memphis the day was so hot that alligators crawled out of the Mississippi River and were sizzling in the streets. In another conversation when a writer, envisioning me, I suppose, as a fat, well-basted Tom turkey asked, “Mr. Pickering, what is it that gets your teaching juices simmering?” I told the truth. The good class, I said, often had little to do with students or even the material read. The weather, learning that a friend didn’t have cancer, a witty letter, affection domestic—such things influenced classes more than books. Yesterday I taught well, I explained, because of breakfast. At breakfast the family was grumpy, so grumpy that Eliza climbed down out of her high chair and coming over to me, put her arms around me, and said, “Everybody is so mean to you Daddy that I am going to give you a big kiss.” The truth, I am afraid, turned the reporter’s creative juices to cold, packaged lard, and in the article he did not mention the kiss. Instead he wrote about my standing on desks and in wastecans, things I did 25 years ago when hormones spun through me like high pressure centers, turning my palms into lakes and making gardens grow atop my ears, big, spicey gardens, foxglove ringing like bells and clematis around my forehead, pagan and crimson.

I did not see Dead Poets Society until Thanksgiving. When it came to Willimantic in May, the children had chicken pox, and by the time they recovered the movie had moved on. Shortly afterward we, too, left, going to our farm in Nova Scotia. On returning in August I put off seeing the movie until after convocation, for I thought it might influence my talk. After convocation classes began, and small responsibilities cluttered my hours until the Thanksgiving holiday. Not long after the holiday a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telephoned, explaining that he heard I was the model for John Keating. When I told him I had just seen the movie, he was excited and set up an interview two days later. Supposedly the interview would last an hour, and the arrangements were elaborate. While I talked on the telephone, a free-lance technician recorded my conversation in the house. Later the technician’s tape and that of the studio in Toronto would be spliced to create the illusion of intimacy. Alas, having seen the movie I was weary of illusion. I didn’t put a bathing suit on my head; I said what I really thought, and the interview lasted 20 minutes. Robin Williams, I said, was more restrained and a great deal more sensible than I was 25 years ago. Still, I declared, I recognized bits of myself and liked the movie. I liked it because it was a movie, not a work of art, not one of those Swedish or Hungarian films that binds tension to heart and stomach and makes one sigh for Metamucil. When I left the theater, I said, I felt good about life and myself. I didn’t mention my “part” in the movie to anyone at the theater. I wanted to, though, and considered telling the man who took up tickets. But I thought better of that, and instead bought a three-dollar tub of buttered popcorn. I almost shed a tear or two at the end, but the scenes in which the Society met in a cave frightened Eliza, so for the last half of the movie I bounced her on my lap. I told the announcer that the movie and the celebrity, such as it was, had not influenced my little doings. In October, however, I said, my 81-year-old father fell, and that had affected my life. I wanted to take care of him, I explained, but wasn’t sure how. Builders looked at my house and made suggestions. One morning I put the house on the market; that afternoon I took it off. Bringing Father up from Tennessee would not be easy on him, so, I said, I had talked to schools in the South about jobs. When compared to the effect of Father’s fall, I summed up and ended the interview, the effect of the movie upon my life and feelings was negligible.

The newspaper accounts of the convocation smacked of the celebratory ritual of the occasion and were so kind and generous that friends on the faculty wrote their own reports. “Rumor has it,” the Associated Press supposedly wrote, referring to the husky, the mascot of the university, “that Sam Pickering is going to dress up in the dog suit at football games.” “Convocation at the University of Connecticut,” stated UPI, “traditionally a small gathering characterized by tweed jackets, shuffling feet, and hacking coughs of professional pipe-smokers, was transformed yesterday by the presence of a media superstar, displayed with the aid of modern technology to a dazzled audience of attentive adolescents. Professor “Sam” Pickering, who recently burst upon the world as the academic model for the character portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society, singlehandedly brought the convocation ceremony out of the doldrums and into the TV spotlight.”

Because of convocation two collections of my essays made the best-seller list for September at the university bookstore. After The Night of the Mary Kay Commandos and Yukon Ho!, one of my books was the third best-seller, while behind something called Apocalypse, the other was fifth. The number of books sold, I should add, was small. In November, I called the university presses of Iowa and Georgia to find out how the publicity surrounding Dead Poets Society influenced sales. From the first of July through the end of October, Iowa sold 47 copies of May Days; during the same period Georgia sold 43 copies of The Right Distance, for a total sale at both presses of 90 books, ten of which I bought. Although convocation did not increase the sales of my books appreciably, the publicity affected my mail. After reading newspaper accounts of the ceremony, scores of former students wrote me. The letters flattered me. Like deathbed scenes in early children’s books in which the sun inevitably rose and music was always heard, the letters were similar, so similar that the movie seems to have set off a general appreciative response. If Keating had been a scoundrel, not only would I have not spoken at convocation but I suspect I would have received letters from students damning me and then blaming all their failures after college on me. Still, Keating was a hero, and in the letters so was I. “Thanks for treating us like people—not the inconveniences or dullards as we seemed to be to others,” a man wrote from Pennsylvania. “Not a week goes by that I don’t think of how you inspired me and how,” a high school teacher wrote, “I can inspire my students.”

Although I cannot separate one year from the next, much less one young boy or girl from another, the students remembered my classes clearly. “I have better recall of your lectures,” a newspaper reporter wrote, “than the story I wrote yesterday.” Another student remembered the day on which Francis was born, “when Jane Eyre,” she said, “took on mythical proportions.” “One time I wrote a poem for your class and apologized for it,” a woman recalled, “You wrote back a note that I’ve always kept. Do your best, you said, and say no more. This advice has made all the difference to me over the years.” The letters both touched and disturbed me; in truth I hoped they reflected not reality so much as convention. If I thought that I really influenced the lives of students, I might stop teaching. I am not a big enough person for such responsibility. Happily not all the letters were tributes; unintentionally some were funny and kept me from taking my correspondence and myself too seriously. “I am a former student of yours (class of 1982),” a man wrote; “I’ve recently written a poem and was wondering whether you might be willing to critique it, and help me with the punctuation, i.e. where commas should be placed.”

Although I received letters from diverse people—Tom who drove the UPS truck when we first moved to Hillside Circle and then an old girlfriend who ended her letter, writing “From one who has loved you for a long time and has known that a seed of greatness lay within”—most of my mail came from students and then teachers. Unlike students who thanked me for inspiring and giving them good advice, teachers wrote for advice and inspiration. A teacher from Massachusetts described her lessons, then asked typically, “are these writing assignments really meaningful or are they just stupid? Is it meaningful to have a high school sophomore write a character sketch of someone who has influenced her? Is it right to have them write four and five paragraph essays on a short story or novel they’ve read?” From New Jersey a teacher sent the reading list for her high school’s English department and asked me to revise it, so “it would be relevant and mean something to the students.” Receiving a reply, I decided, meant more than particular suggestions, and so while I wrote long answers to such letters I tiptoed around revising reading lists and judging assignments. Many letters came from tired or as they labeled themselves “burned out” teachers. Having lost energy and sometimes optimism, they wrote hoping I could supply some magical intellectual or spiritual elixir which would enable them to recapture their early years of splendor in the classroom. In responding to these letters I felt myself on surer ground. No longer was I an energetic movie character. I had aged, and so I wrote, telling them that they were not burned out, just older. “You are no longer 26 and free from worry,” I said, “you now have children, sick friends, aging parents, and probably a broken lawn mower. You understand more than you ever did and the more that you understand has made you gloomy.” Cure-alls are for the foolish and the naive, and so I offered them none. I did, however, urge them to take walks, to wander through books and across landscapes, to find their own Unnamed Pond. Amid the goldenrod and the milkweed, Shakespeare and petri dishes, they might, I wrote, be able to put things into some satisfactory but probably undefinable perspective.

I thought convocation would end my “celebrity.” I was wrong. Because the talk was successful, publicity increased. Instead of fading gray and out of sight like asters in November, I bloomed, not however as the green model for a character in a movie but as an orangy, autumnal commonsensical voice. Immediately after convocation groups began importuning me to speak. Not only that, they offered fees, almost always giving me what I asked. At first I charged four or five hundred dollars. Now I have settled on a thousand dollars and my traveling expenses, an amount, frankly that strikes me as akin to robbery, something I tell people who approach me to speak. Of course I don’t charge everyone, not local and charitable organizations. Not surprisingly, I have not escaped the movie. In October, I spoke to an alumni group at Worcester State College. Although my topic was the personal essay, the man introducing me mentioned Dead Poets Society, saying I was “the epitome of a great teacher.” At the reception after the lecture a woman turned to me and said, “you have changed my life.” Taken aback all I could think to say was “for the better, I hope.” “I was working for an insurance company, trying to make megabucks; then I saw Dead Poets Society,” she explained; “soon after, I quit the company and came back here to school to get a teaching certificate. You only live once,” she continued, pausing before adding a questioning “right.” “Right,” I answered, “good for you.”

Like the letters I received in August the talks broadened my acquaintance and enriched my days. In November an older woman who heard me speak telephoned, and for over an hour we talked about the death of her only son. In December, a woman introduced herself with a vita, writing “BS ‘80, MBA ‘84, TBI ‘87 (Traumatic Brain Injury).” She said that writing was a “healthy form of rehabilitative therapy” and asked me to become a pen pal. Along with the sad and the serious speeches have brought the light and the comic. From Tennessee a man sent a postcard depicting the home of the country music singer Loretta Lynn in Hurricane Mills. Along with the card he enclosed an article from the Chattanooga Times, the headline to which read “Woman seeking direction in life lost for two weeks in woods.” Printed in red and blue on white paper, a letter arrived last week from an Eagle Scout in New York. For four years the scout wrote, he led the students and faculty at his high school “in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance each morning over the public address system.” He was inviting me, the scout continued, to participate in his Patriotic Pledge Program,” consisting of “prominent Americans introducing themselves and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on cassette tape. The participants are also encouraged,” he added, “to briefly comment on America’s freedoms and/or opportunities in the introduction as well.” Among the people whom the scout had already recorded were “The Fonz” Henry Winkler; Casey Kassem, the top forty radio announcer; Malcolm Forbes; Annette Funicello, alumna of the Mickey Mouse Club; Dan Rather; Alex Haley, author of Roots; the astronaut “Deke” Slayton; and from the Howdy Doody Show, Buffalo Bob Smith. John Keating, not me, belonged on the list. To forestall discussion of my political views in an interview, I once said that I was a Communist Republican, a statement which like many of my offhand remarks appeared in print. Whatever I am, however, Communist, Methodist, Republican, dervish, chiropractor, or teacher, I don’t wear my patriotism publicly. “Unfortunately,” I answered the scout, “my voice is raspy and anyone who listened to me would be sure to decamp for countries more musical. My recitation would undermine patriotism and so,” I said, “for the good of the nation I must decline your kind and flattering offer.”

While interest in my speaking increased, interest in my teaching and association with Dead Poets Society did not fade completely. In September a member of a public relations firm in New York asked if his company might represent me. I declined the offer. In October, a woman interviewed me for the Sewanee News, the alumni publication of my old college. In November, the article appeared under the headline “Teacher of the Year.” Since the News gave her six columns, the writer had the leisure to be thoughtful, and the article was good. In it I sounded like myself, criticizing the emphasis upon self in our society and then explaining that I drifted into teaching. “I’d have been happy doing something else,” I said, “I would have been happy as a banker; by nature I’m not the sort to be unhappy.” In November a writer attended two of my classes. I don’t teach in the building which houses the English department; instead I teach across the campus in the agricultural school. I have a bad disk in my neck, and the walk to class relaxes my neck and lessens the pain. Not only that but I like the idea of teaching in the agricultural school. The sweet aroma of manure helps keep mind, nose, and literary criticism in the fleshly world of the actual. The writer, however, did not know the reasons for my teaching in the agricultural school, and after attending the lectures called a department secretary. “Mr. Pickering,” he said, “teaches awfully far away from your part of the campus. Has the English department banished him because he is so boisterous and unruly?” “Boisterous and unruly,” the secretary responded; “why he’s not boisterous and unruly; at least he’s not when he takes his medication.”

To a degree I have been responsible for my continued identification with Dead Poets Society. Before convocation and shortly after I started roaming around Unnamed Pond, I wrote a brief essay about the movie and my “celebrity” as a way of putting the experience behind me. Almost immediately the Hartford Courant bought the essay; unfortunately the piece was not published until December 24. Appearing just when I thought curiosity about the movie and me had died, the essay stirred interest anew. Happily, though, people respond to the same story differently, reaching different conclusions and being moved in various, sometimes odd, ways. In answer to a query from a school superintendent I noted in the essay that I was not an educational theorist but simply someone who happened to teach, “a guy with a nice wife, three small children, an aging father, and a six-year-old Plymouth.” At nine o’clock in the morning on the 26th, the telephone range. On the line was Benny Cardinello from Gem Chevrolet in Willimantic. He had read my “wonderful” article, he explained then added, “and Mr. Pickering do I have a deal for you.”

In talks and answers to letters I tried to capture the spirit of the convocation talk and be generous and compassionate. Being always thoughtful was difficult, and at the end of September a new character, Josh, began appearing in my essays, pushing aside the sentimental country people who had bumbled laughingly through my writings for five years. “Babykins, the King has arrived,” Josh said, “and it’s time to pitch the saccharine and kill the sweetiepies. To stay healthy and survive the foolishness a man has got to have a fatty streak of meanness in his character. Sugar and spice might do for the kids at convocation, but they won’t do for a writer.” Josh was 50 years old and a disappointed idealist. “Hell,” he told me “it took 45 years of hard work for me to become a liberal and then it only lasted seven minutes.” “Still,” he mused, “that’s about twice as long as a good.” And here I stopped him because I sensed that he was going to speak crudely and use a word that I never intend to write. Unlike me, Josh often talks about intimate doings. One day he burst into my office, interrupting me in the middle of a letter to a former student discouraged by graduate school. “Do I really want to devote an entire life and passion to wringing meaning out of two lines, one line, or even one word,” she wrote, “and not even wringing out something but mangling, mutilating, torturing the word enough to mean what my thesis paper or my doctoral dissertation or my article says it means?” Reassuring the girl was difficult, and I welcomed Josh’s interruption. “Have you noticed that every shyster in the university claims he’s an expert?” he said; “well, I am going to dip into the honey myself. I have decided to become a consultan.” “Consultant,” I answered; “don’t you mean consultant?” “Hell, no, jackass, I mean consultan,” he exclaimed. “Oh,” I said; “well how much will you get a day?” “As much as I want,” he said, looking long at me before turning and leaving the office to me and the girl blushing unseen in the dry air of graduate school.

When Josh first showed up, he made relatively harmless remarks, asking me, I remember, why skinny people always had heavy relationships. Later, though, as winter approached, and I spoke more often and received more mail, he became increasingly abrasive. When the state decided to place a minimum security prison in Mansfield, Josh called it a “human toxic waste dump.” As town officials knew what pollutants were dumped in the landfill, so he said, they should know what vile waste was stored in the prison. The prisoners were not there, he told me, for taking candy from babies. They were hard cases, villains who had plea-bargained the brutality out of their crimes. Because I did not want the prison in town, Josh’s remarks did not bother me, although later I told a friend that I thought Josh “lacked compassion.” Josh went too far, however, when he showed up at my house one morning at eight o’clock, clutching a student newspaper in his hands. Printed in the paper was a list of support groups on campus, some thirty or forty. “Great God Almighty,” Josh exclaimed, “there are so many support groups on this campus that almost everybody must belong to one. Anybody who doesn’t is obviously a fruitcake and had better head for the psychiatrist.” The statement was prologue to his real subject. “Here,” he said pointing to an advertisement on a back page; “here’s one that gets me in the gut.” In a big square was a notice announcing a meeting of a support group for people suffering from eating disorders: “anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating.” “Damnit, old buddy,” he said, “let’s have a banquet for these folks. Of course we’d have to set out pots for people with Bulgaria.” “Bulimia,” I interrupted; “it’s bulimia.” “Bulgaria,” he answered; “I call them as I hear them.” And here he pronounced Bulgaria in an unsavory fashion, first bellowing Bul, then letting garia roll off in a long gag, ending in an exhausting and exhaling short a. “And, of course,” he said, although I tried not to listen, “we’d admit anorexics at a reduced rate, charging them, say, only a fourth of the price of regular admission. If you are worried about losing your cookies on the deal” (which I wasn’t), he continued, “we’ll make it up on compulsive eaters. A compulsive eater,” he said, “is a first-rate trencherman, and when he is in his stride can go through five or six meals at a grazing.”

As soon as Josh left, I walked up to Unnamed Pond. For the next week whenever I had free hours, I went to the pond, and for two months Josh disappeared. If he had returned to mind during this time, I wouldn’t have talked to him and probably would not even have noticed him. Amid the weeds of late fall I was content and too busy to listen to his barbed ranklings. About the pond days were cool and pastel, mornings flowing from gray through silver then breaking into soothing patches of red, orange, white, and blue. I spent afternoons sitting deep in reed grass, the soft heads cottony above me and the sheaved khaki stalks rustling in the wind, the stir natural and not forced by publicity. Home to the children I brought rough-fruited cinquefoil, evening primrose, mullein, elegant spikes of vervain, the red stems of goldenrod, motherwort, yellow rocket, and then armfuls of mountain mint. Bunched together the gray heads seemed hard, but under a little pressure they shredded into fragrance, clean and decent. Frequently Eliza accompanied me to the pond. In brambles and low in alders we found birds’ nests, often lined with mud and down. In stalks of sunflowers insects laid egg capsules, and minute orange worms slept the fall away. Once we opened the thick stem of pokeweed. The inside had frozen then thawed into separate yellow circles of fiber, resembling bananas sliced regular and round. The centers of the circles were thin and translucent, and when they were held up against the sun, they resembled wedding bands. “Daddy, what is God?” Eliza asked, as we looked up through the pokeweed at the clouds, “Is he a face in the sky?” “Yes,” I answered, satisfying Eliza and myself, too.

Josh avoided me until last Monday. I was driving back to Storrs from Woodbridge, an hour-and-a-half trip. I had spoken to teachers at the Amity Regional High School. Although I don’t think I got them to think “a bit more creatively” as the principal instructed, the talk went well. When I finished, a woman my age came up and said, “you look like all the boys I dated in college.” Just before getting on the Merritt Parkway, I stopped at a bakery and bought a chocolate cake for Vicki and the children and then for me a sweetroll to eat on the way home. When I returned to the car, Josh was sitting inside. “Old buddy,” he said as I got in, “long time no see.” The trip was tense; traffic was heavy and people drove fast and foolishly because the weatherman predicted a snowstorm. Josh did not make the trip pleasant as he spent the time talking about the English department. He had thought, he told me, of a new head for the department, Manuel Noriega. Not only did he have administrative experience, but he was Hispanic. Even better, Professor Noriega was a victim of imperialism. At first, Josh explained when I looked puzzled, the green dollars and gray men in blue suits helped the professor rule. In the process, though, Josh sighed, the professor became so addicted to Yankee luxury that he practically lost his soul. “What is admirable in a senior vice-president at Bankers’ Trust,” Josh said, “won’t do for a branch manager in the banana provinces.” Now the professor was hapless jailbait, the sort of person likely to be interviewed on public radio and get the university lots of good publicity “like,” Josh added, “your convocation speech.” As far as the professor’s “fitting in” was concerned, Josh noted that he liked opera and pornography, both of which were perennially popular in English departments. “I’d recommend him to the dean tomorrow,” Josh said as we approached Storrs, “except for one glaring flaw in his character. If he couldn’t hold out against the American army, that ragtail and bobend bunch of dropouts and teenagers, any longer than he did in Panama, he wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance against those crafty bastards in the English department.”

When I let Josh out at Four Corners, he said he would get in touch the next day. Shortly afterwards the snow storm swept into eastern Connecticut, great clots falling in moist patties. For dessert Vicki covered the cake with vanilla ice cream. At eleven that night I put on my boots and heavy coat and trudged out into the storm. I was gone for three hours, roaming through the woods behind Horsebarn Hill, following Kessel Creek as it turned under ridges and ran down toward the Fenton River. The light in the woods was blue and white; the air was fresh, and I followed animal tracks. Deer tracks ran in lines over the slopes, and although I didn’t see any deer, I often heard them running away from me, their hooves crunching in the deep snow. The next morning Eliza and I built a snowman and a snowwoman in the front yard. We used corncobs for noses and hickory nuts for eyes. For a mustache we stuck the long reddish-black seed pod from a honey locust across the man’s face. On the woman we used bunches of dried asters and mountain mint for hair and clusters of seeds from maple leaf viburnum for earrings. We also put a bosom on the woman, something which caused much tittering among Francis’s and Edward’s friends on the school bus that afternoon. As could be expected I didn’t hear from Josh and so long as I wander field and meadow chances are I won’t hear from him.

Josh labelled my speeches “oral journalism.” Since convocation I have been a prolific lecturer. I have talked because people asked me, and being asked to do something is nice. I have also spoken because I am paid. I’m not growing wealthy, however, and I told an acquaintance “if you see me driving a new Plymouth in the spring, then you will know I have made it into the big time.” I have also spoken because the talks allow me to visit family and neglected friends. In December, I spent a hectic week in Nashville, Tennessee. In five days I appeared on a panel, lectured four times, and attended three receptions, two dinners, and a luncheon. The talks enabled me to visit father, and at the end of the week he and I flew back to Storrs for Christmas. My first engagement was at Vanderbilt, where I was on a panel with Tom Schulman, my former student and the writer of Dead Poets Society. Seeing Tom was a pleasure, for he had grown into a generous and talented man. The panel, too, was fun. The crowd was large, and the auditorium in which the panel was scheduled filled quickly, and to accommodate the overflow Vanderbilt opened two rooms with closed-circuit television. Many of my childhood friends came, and I labored to be honest. On being asked why I wrote, I said that as a college professor I wasn’t worked hard. Consequently, I wrote essays partly out of guilt and for the sake of appearances because I didn’t want people to think me a layabout. Later in the week I was after-dinner speaker at the meeting of the alumni association of Montgomery Bell Academy, my old high school. Five hundred people attended the talk, the next night 1200 more heard me make the graduation address at the winter commencement at Belmont College.

Writing a talk does not take long, and I worry that speaking could stamp slovenly habits of mind and work into my character. If in three hours I can write a speech which I can “sell” for a thousand dollars, why devote weeks to writing essays for literary magazines which, if they pay, pay only ten dollars a page? Moreover, because an audience does not have the leisure to analyze the spoken, as readers do the written word, a speaker need not be precise or even particularly careful of word choice. The wash from a comic story generally sweeps criticism and recollection of shoddy reasoning out of an audience’s mind. Even worse, speaking is intoxicating. Much as an audience is rarely able to weigh and judge a good speaker’s thought, so the speaker himself has difficulty dissecting compliment. Rereading reduces flattering letters to conventions and in so doing protects the recipient from taking their praise too seriously. After a lecture a speaker is often too weary to be critical, and instead of analyzing compliments and putting them into sensible perspective, he lets them sweep warmly over and perhaps into him. Without conscious assent he may become to believe, as silly as it reads on paper, that he is “truly a Socratic teacher with a compelling and magnetic personality and mind.”

Among my reasons for going to Nashville was the possibility of teaching at Vanderbilt. For some time the Vanderbilt English department had not filled an endowed professorship. In October I applied for the post, probably for the wrong reason, not because I was unhappy in Storrs or wanted to teach at Vanderbilt but because my father’s health was failing. I did not think him strong enough mentally or physically to move to Connecticut. If I taught at Vanderbilt, he would not have to leave his world and I could care for him. Without consulting the English department, prominent alumni had urged me to consider the chair. Sensitive about their prerogatives, English departments forever raise little matters to big principle, and after the alumni suggested my candidacy to the administration I was nervous about my reception in the English department. I should not have worried. There was no reception. The day after the panel I spoke to English majors at Vanderbilt. Following the lecture the students served dinner. Several faculty attended the meal, and although I stayed at the dinner for two hours talking to students and signing books, and napkins, no teacher introduced himself to me. Waiting for me on my return to Connecticut was a letter from the head of the department dismissing me out of hand. Besides “scholarly eminence,” “extensive and sophisticated experience in the direction of graduate work,” was, he wrote, “expected of our endowed professors.” “Captain Kangaroo,” Vicki said when I showed her the letter; “they think you are Captain Kangaroo, climbing on desks and out of windows. Your academic career is finished, big boy; fall on your hands and knees and thank God they wouldn’t have you.” “But,” I said, “the half dozen books, the 130 or so articles, my running the graduate program here—didn’t that make any difference?” “Damn,” she said, “you are slow. Get Josh to explain it to you. Those pissants couldn’t care less about that stuff. Anyone who has received as much publicity as you have has got to be a fraud. Be satisfied with the money you made.” Vicki was right; there were checks on the icebox door for 2450 dollars. The problem was I had spent over half of it: a hundred dollars for a Christmas present for Rosie, father’s maid, and 147 dollars for two Christmas presents for Vicki, a print of cedar waxwings and an artsy chartreuse plate, both presents being stuff from which attics are furnished. While in Nashville I also spent 250 dollars on incidentals, much of it going for good food for father: rib roasts, Australian wines, key lime pies. The big expense, however, was 832 dollars for clothes. I had not bought a pair of gray flannel pants or a new suit in 14 years. The lapels on my jackets were thinner than inchworms, and once I cinched my trousers together I looked like a milkweed pod in the fall, swollen and ready to burst. If I continued to speak, I needed better clothes, so I bought a suit, a blue blazer, and two pairs of gray slacks.

I have already worn the clothes several times. Although publicity may have ruined my name as an academic, my reputation as a speaker flourishes. During the next four months, I am addressing a state library association, lecturing at four colleges, talking to a group of people with multiple sclerosis, and speaking at conventions in Arkansas and Illinois. I have been invited to deliver two commencement talks, one at a junior college, the other at the local high school. This past week I received invitations to give keynote addresses at two meetings, the first focusing on child abuse and the second on planning for higher education in 1990’s. Although I know nothing about either subject, conference organizers were unconcerned. We want you, one wrote, “because you sound like a real-life, thoughtful person and not an “expert.”” Not only can experts not understand other experts but they are bored by them and people come to me, I think, seeking not new ideas or approaches, but common sense and hope. That frightens me, both for myself and others. To say the wrong thing about Charles Dickens in class is a matter of little consequence. To say the wrong thing about child abuse could influence lives. I also worry that as more people convince themselves, as one man put it, that there is a “special aura about you,” I might delude myself and lose contact with the rough land around Unnamed Pond and that, humbling, rougher land within. I hope that won’t happen. Maybe it won’t if the little things I talk about don’t blow loosely about in the sky but draw their nourishment from the dark, wormy soil of family and tale. Just a few minutes ago when I was writing this piece and taking my thought and self too seriously, Eliza came into the room. Words had not come easily, and as I struggled to express myself, I ran my left hand back and forth through my hair. “Daddy,” Eliza said, frowning and putting her hands on her hips, elbows stuck out just like her mother, “Daddy, promise me every day you will comb your hair down. I comb mine down. Why should you leave yours up?”


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