Monday, August 8

Look on my works, ye mighty

I was a shy kid and much of what happened to me and around me during my high school years is a cloudy stew. Details have been lost, many, I suppose, due to my own need for self-preservation. Remembering is so painful and embarrassing that I simply choose to leave much of it behind. Not all is gone, to be sure, and one morning at Northeast High School in Kansas City stands out as turning point.

The first semester of my senior year Mrs. Aleen Sandgren was my English Lit teacher. Mrs. Sandgren was the stuff of myth at the school. She was a veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War II. She was a proud Marine, and took no guff from anyone; students, faculty, or administrators. She was a gentle disciplinarian, but if you insisted on creating chaos in her class, or even worse, were less than attentive, she would reach back and grab an eraser from the channel at the bottom of the big, slate, blackboard, wind up and throw a perfect strike on the side of your head, leaving a swath of white chalk dust across your ear. You were informed that if you dusted away the chalk, you would be treated to two swats with a three-foot-long paddle that Mrs. Sandgren wielded with great enthusiasm. Corporal punishment was the norm in public schools in the sixties for both girls and boys, and while I got my share of swats in junior high and high school, I never received the paddle from Mrs. Sandgren. 

The other side of Mrs. Sandgren was softer. She was a lifelong scholar of of the romance poets, particularly Byron and could quote him at length at the drop of a hat. She insisted that her students get comfortable with poets, authors and playwrights not only by reading them, but through recitation, keeping the character of the writer in mind as we recited, from memory, selected narratives, poems, and sonnets.

My first assigned work was a three-paragraph monologue from To Kill A Mockingbird. Mrs. Sandgren expressed her admiration for my ability to memorize the speech, but thought my delivery was wanting. ( I found out years later, as I came to call Mrs. Sandgren a friend, that she could see how uncomfortable I was in front of the class, and wanted to push me further outside my comfort zone.)

I was then assigned Percy Bysshe Shelly’s 1818 sonnet, Ozymandias to recite in front of the class. Fourteen lines, no big deal. The poem explores the impermanence of empires and rulers, in this case Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:'
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. 

I had from Friday to Friday to memorize Ozymandias and prepare to present to the class. I was pretty good at absorbing words, and the memorization part came easy, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on the voices. I was certainly no orator, but I felt that as long as I could slide in behind the character, I could pull it off without embarrassing myself too badly.

As class began, Mrs. Sandgren called on me first. 

“Marvin*, I expect a great reading from you today. Ladies and gentlemen, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias.” Her introduction left me wondering if it wouldn't be far better to jump out of the open window and make a break for it.

All the blood drained from my brain as I walked to the front of the classroom. The class was, as Mrs. Sandgren demanded, respectfully quiet and attentive. She stood at the back of the classroom with two fully-loaded erasers, ready to mete out law and order if needed.

Ozymandias is spoken in three voices; the narrator, the traveler, and Ozymandias himself. I made it to the point where the voice shifts to the pharaoh. “My name is Ozymandias, king of . . . .”

“Stop!”, came the order from the Marine at the back of the room. “Remember, you’re taking on the personality of a king, a ghost speaking across the ages. Try it again, Marvin.”

She let me finish the entire poem the next time, then silently walked to the front of the classroom, opened the top drawer of her big, walnut desk and got out a pink hall pass, signed it and handed it to me.

“Go out and walk the front hall. See if you can find more strength for Ozymandias. Find the voice of the pharaoh.’

“Well, shit’, I thought. This is never going to end. As I opened the oak door that led to the main hall on the second floor, I heard one of the class clowns snicker, followed by the unmistakable thud of a felt eraser thrown by a Marine.

To the left was a marble likeness of George Washington, standing silently on his pedestal, about twelve feet tall. Truth is, after six years of classes and events at Northeast, I really didn’t pay much attention to the statue before. It was a common meeting place between classes, a place to exchange class notes with a friend, or a few minutes of hand-holding with your steady.

I turned around, and at the other end of the long, tiled hall, past the plaster friezes and the main entrance, the offices of the principal and counselors, was a statue of Abraham Lincoln, rendered in the same style as Washington’s likeness.

I walked down the hall, my hall pass held out like a passport whenever a teacher grew near, and locked onto Lincoln’s face. Where Washington seemed an abstract likeness, Lincoln seemed real, and I could almost hear his voice, unpolished and gentle, but forceful and reverent, delivering The Gettysburg Address, one of the most important and touching speeches of the nineteenth century. He surely wasn’t Ozymandias, but he was larger than life in that moment.

Suddenly, I could hear Ozymandias, ruler of Egypt and the world as they knew it. I knew what it would take to bring him and his words back to life.

I walked back to Mrs. Sandgren’s room, and watched through the door as another student delivered her recitation, and as Mrs. Sandgren walked to the front of the classroom, I opened the door and requested permission to enter and deliver my recitation. (That’s how things were done in her classroom.)

She introduced me again, and I took my place near her desk.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:'

I paused.

My palms were sweating, I could feel my face flush crimson. I had to reach down and somehow do this.

I pulled up the chair at the side of her desk, stepped carefully on top of the desk, pulled myself to my full height, struck a power pose with my arms akimbo and bellowed in my best pubescent male voice:

'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

I slowly descended from my pedestal and finished in the traveler’s voice:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The room was quiet. After what seemed like an hour, Mrs. Sandgren started to clap slowly. She was soon joined by thirty high school seniors, all standing and applauding.

Tears ran down my cheeks. I felt as though I had conquered Everest and written a symphony at the same time.  

Mrs. Sandgren came to the front of the class, shook my hand and gave me a hug. “I knew you had that in you.”

“I didn’t.”

Hardly a day passes that I don’t think about that morning. I have always carried a copy of Ozymandias with me. They have been handwritten in pencil and ink, typed out on my dad’s old black Underwood and my own Remington electric. The copy in my wallet now is an inkjet print circa 2006, one of the last things I did before I closed my studio’s doors for the last time. Where some of more worldly buddies would carry a condom in their wallet in case of a Saturday night emergency, I carried, and to this day carry Percy Bysshe Shelley, the traveler and the pharaoh. I’m not sure what manner of Saturday night escapade might have lead to a dramatic reading of Shelley as I played miniature golf at Cool Crest, but I was always ready. I am ready still.

I’m still shy. I sometimes have a hard time talking to people. Asking someone for permission to photograph them feels like being in high school again. Often, the terror fades if I think about Ozymandias, when I was able to put myself on that walnut pedestal, and how Mrs. Sandgren believed in what I could be. I’m ashamed I never found the strength or grace to thank her. I lost track of Mrs. Sandgren a few years after high school. She continued to be an important part of my adopted families in Northeast, but I met a girl, moved to Colorado to build houses and generally went off in other directions. I just lost track of a lot of things that mattered. I was burying my past.

So now, in an effort to make up for my failures earlier in life, nearly fifty years on, Retta Aleen Sandgren, wherever you are, thank you for being there at exactly the right time and place. I wish you could look on my works and rejoice.

Update, February 11, 2018 - I found out today that Mrs. Sandgren passed away a few weeks ago. I am so sad I didn't find the opportunity to reach out to her before she passed.

* I was known as Marvin throughout my public education. My given first name was a one-way ticket to a fight in the alley, and nicknames weren’t allowed, so “Bud” was out, as well. It's a dead tipoff that someone is reaching out from the past when I hear a voice on voicemail say, "Marvin, is that you?"

Thus spake Ozymandias.


Michelle T said...

This is a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing it.

When I was a kid I always wanted to be a singer, but I was painfully shy. In college, with the help of a wonderful teacher, I managed to overcome my shyness, changed majors, and ended up getting a degree in vocal performance. Now, as a teacher myself, I get to pay the gift forward by helping others to overcome their fears.

After years of trying to run from my own past, I finally decided I needed to track down that teacher. Miraculously, thanks to Facebook, I managed to find her. I still feel incredibly grateful that I've had the chance to thank her. I know how lucky I am that I was able to do that.

Both as a grateful student and as a teacher—often of frightened young people—your story really resonated with me, Bud. Thanks again for sharing it. ��

Bud Simpson said...

Thank you Michelle. I finally had to get these words out. This story is an important part of who I am, and if I can organize my thoughts well enough, I have a follow-up story to write on my years-long fight with agoraphobia. I'm still running from my past, but I'm slowing down. :-)

Teachers are the cornerstone of civilization. Thank you for what you do every day. I owe my entire career as a photographer to a teacher in the fourth grade that encouraged critical thinking and the pursuit of science.

Keep up the good work, Michelle!

Matt said...

Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Michelle T said...

Thanks so much, Bud. 😊 Looking forward to your next story!