When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates died. Robert and I had never been friends, but we were both part of the “Challenge” program in middle school, a small intimate group that had almost all our classes together. When we reached high school, we were in many of the same honors classes. We all knew him as a quiet person, a good student, and an exceptional musician who played piano, trumpet, and, most notably, bagpipes.
Robert hadn’t been entirely well for as long as I’d known him. In sixth grade he had surgery to remove cysts in his sinuses. In tenth grade he had a seizure in chemistry class. The night he died, he was home playing the piano when he had another seizure. The responding paramedics gave him an injection of something that he reacted badly to; he stopped breathing, and never started again.
We all found out the next morning. Even though he and I had never been close friends, the news was stunning. I was numb for the rest of the day, the rest of the week. It was like the color had been sucked out of the world, like all sound was muffled and flat. I can’t even imagine what it was like for those who were close to him.
Most of the teachers tried to go about business as usual, and the routine was some comfort. But by AP English, the last class of the day, all of us were weary, and it showed. Our teacher Mrs. Glancy watched us all file in, silent and stooped with sadness. I saw a woman sitting in one corner of the classroom, and remembered that Mrs. Glancy was being observed that day by a member of the Golden Apple committee. She had been nominated for the prestigious award some weeks earlier, and told us someone would be visiting our class.
We all took our seats, the room empty of the usual chatter, and the bell rang into the void. We all looked toward Mrs. Glancy, expecting what we had gotten all day, a sincere expression of sympathy then a gentle entrance into the day’s lessons. It was what the observer was expecting as well, so that she could evaluate her teaching ability.
Instead, Mrs. Glancy walked to the podium with a book in hand, and set it down, opening to a marked place. She paused, glanced up at us, then read aloud John Donne’s poem “Death Be Not Proud.”
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
When the last words had settled back into silence, she looked up.
“I want you all to take out some paper and a pen.” The class rustled as we obeyed. She waited until we were ready, then continued. “I want you to write. Write whatever you want, whatever you need. A poem, a story, a letter, anything. You’re not going to turn this in. It’s entirely up to you whether you show this to anyone at all. Write for you.”
She went to her desk, sat down, took out a piece of paper and a pen for herself, and started writing.
It was the exact right thing to do, for all of us, and the exact right lesson to teach that day: that poetry has the power to speak to us wherever we are, and that writing is a tool that is not only available but vital to everyone. Ironically, it also scuttled her chances of winning the Golden Apple that year, a lesson in and of itself, that doing the right thing doesn’t always win awards.
I wrote a letter to Robert that day, but I don’t remember what it said. It wasn’t any timeless masterpiece, and I’ve long since thrown it away. The point wasn’t the product. The point was the process.