April 2018

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Silver and Gold

New Year’s Eve, Chancey visited. She was a high school junior in an American class that I taught twelve years ago, and now she lives in Minnesota, but I get to see her when she comes to Seattle once or twice a year.

Chancey was a strong student in high school, but it was her spirit that I always appreciated the most. She was committed to learning in that way that geeks like I am are, and she seemed relaxed about grades in a way that I admired.

When Chancey was a junior, students turned in their first essays, essays analyzing The Scarlett Letter, in the fall, and Chancey’s essay wasn’t as strong as she wanted it to be, so throughout the year, we had paper conferences, and she rewrote that essay over and over. “I need to learn to write,” she said. She received no academic credit for all of this rewriting, but lots of credit in the teachers’ grade book in heaven. (There is no teacher’s grade book in hell. Who would use it? The teachers are in heaven.)

At the year’s end, students took oral exams in which they did an oral explication of a poem that they had seen before (and they had seen a lot of poems.) Students drew a number, and the number correlated with the number on the poem that the student was to explicate.

Chancey selected Emily Dickinson’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.” She talked for a few minutes, and it became quickly clear that she didn’t know what “alabaster” meant, and she had no idea what the “alabaster chambers” might be. After a few minutes, she stopped talking and started laughing. “I have no idea what I’m talking about, do I?”

No. She did not. But she knew that laughter was the right response in this situation.

She maintains that light spirit as an adult who has been through some hard times personally and set for herself new dreams: she is starting a charter school for students in a low income area in the fall, and she has been researching curriculum and applying for grants for over a year now. Starting a school is no small feat, but with her she’s carrying her kindness, her smarts, and her perspective on what’s important, and I know she’ll make an important difference to students and parents.

I have been lucky that some students like Chancey and some friends have stayed the long course with me.

My friend Rose and I, for example, became friends when we were both married, without children, and in our twenties. Over the last twenty years, we’ve traveled together through two divorces (mine and hers), one coming out (mine), two children (hers), two brain tumors (mine), two bouts with breast cancer (hers), one Methodist church (hers and mine), one conversion to Judaism (hers), several new careers for each of us, and many celebrations of birthdays and solstices.

In my life, Rose is gold.

I am so lucky to have friends and students who travel with me along this windy road with so many recalculations. Many of you read my blog, so I want to say here that your presence in my life gives me the kind of confidence and sense of humor that my student Chancey somehow had as a teenager. Like the family I was born into, your spirit inspires and holds me in this life. You mean so much to me.

Some students and friends, however, have drifted from my life. I remember one student coming back to see me after she graduated. She asked for my address and said to me, “When I write, you’d better write back. Because once I’m in your life, I’m there forever. I’m very loyal, and you need to be, too.” I never heard from her again.

As Brownies, we sang the song:

Make new friends,

But keep the old.

One is silver,

And the other, gold.

As a child, I sang this song and recognized that the old friends are the gold ones. I also recognized from a young age that some friendships are for a time and place and do not carry on. I worried that if this were to happen, this would mean that I never really had friends at all: I worried that these short-time friends were like counterfeit gold, of very little value and insulting in their shininess.

Some friends and students others stepped away for a time and have then rejoined me. At those times, I am like the father in the story of the prodigal son: I am delighted that what I thought had been lost was found.

As I look back from my middle age, I think that those short-time and boomerang friendships were for their time and place and were important along that stretch of the journey.

For all of these people along my journey, I feel thankful. This is the spirit of this New Year for me: a spirit of gratitude.

Happy New Year! And thanks.



  1. Lovely post, Mary. I'm not sure how I categorize you and Ann--you are not new friends, but not really old friends, either. But definitely GOOD friends, and that is what counts! Looking forward to lots of beers, Farkle games and other good times in 2013!

  2. To me, Mary, you are SILVER and GOLD.


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