Saturday, August 20, 2011

Memories of Kents Hill for my Fiftieth Reunion

Memories of Mr. Dunn and Mr. Fosse

by Connie Hanson, Class of 1961

When I think of Kents Hill I think first of Mr. Dunn. I think especially of how he would stop individual students when he happened to meet them walking and ask them their opinion about something, usually something to do with school. Mr. Dunn was always trying to improve things for the school at large and he was always directly involved in everything going on. Once I saw him resign as coach of the boy’s hockey team because they had behaved badly with another team. They hung their heads in shame and took the lesson to heart--he had that kind of effect on the students and I am sure on all the faculty too. He had a wonderful hearty laugh, he really enjoyed giving each student his report card (in those days his inferred hers as well), and every year when your birthday came around, he baked a cake for you himself, for you and your entire floor to enjoy at his house in his living room. He took the entire student body--minus the day students--out into the street one dark night in the Fall of ‘58 to watch Sputnik go by overhead in the sky; and he always had interesting people come and give us lectures--one was an arctic explorer; another a parent of one of our classmates who was also an author. He made it possible for me to tour the state briefly with Margaret Chase Smith, and some of my classmates with Candidate John Kennedy. You had the feeling he really cared what you thought and how you felt about the school.

But when I think of the Kents Hill faculty, I think of Mr. Fosse first--he has stayed with me my entire life. In his rare ability to discuss ideas fluently and in context of whatever we were studying, he woke us to a level of awareness of the world which required our whole intellectual effort to respond to it adequately--each to his best effort.

When I first heard about him it was in the Fall of 1958, when I was still a Sophomore--he taught the Juniors. One of the boys was hollering “MOBY RICHARD!” and waving at Mr. Fosse way across the lawn in front of Sampson.  I asked someone “What’s that?” It was explained that Mr. Fosse, whose first name was Richard, always taught his students Moby Dick. I just remember that both the student and Mr. Fosse, way off in the distance, were laughing. I began to see how popular he was among the students who had him. I was delighted when he recruited me to help paint sets for the play he was directing that year.

He was not a tall man, but rather broad-shouldered and heavy set, with a huge head and wonderful intelligent eyes. His hair was dark and just starting to turn gray at his temples, and he wore it a little long, at least two inches behind his ears.  He gave the impression of being and indeed was a supreme intellectual. He was not an athlete--when he went for and dropped the ball in left field at the faculty game in the Spring my senior year everyone booed, but somehow lovingly. Everyone did love him. He had a Master’s degree from Yale in music and would improvise on the hymns we sang in the chapel everyday at 10:30 on the organ after Mr. Dunn told us stories about the old days at Kents Hill. I would go up afterwards and tell him how much I enjoyed it. Eventually, I had him for a teacher.

When I came to Kents Hill as a fourteen year old in 1958,  I was a very bookish, shy, and athletic; but I did not think of myself as particularly intelligent. It is true that the 97 I got in Mr. Dunklee’s geometry class  made me realize I must be smart in some things, but I still didn’t seem to be able to get to the places everyone else seemed to be getting to at the same time they did. When Mom Sickles said to me when I was late once “I’ve got a bone to pick with you!” I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about (new expression to me), except that I was in left field again somehow.  All that changed in my Junior year when I got Mr. Fosse for a teacher. He talked about IDEAS, and I became very, very interested. I did NOT day-dream in his classes--I listened, I heard, I thought, I wrote--I got A’s for what I wrote, A over C- that is. Mr. Fosse gave us Content over Form for grades--my form was not good (spelling, punctuation), but what I had to say was, according to him, very good.

I can remember whole lectures of his verbatim--the common root for “genius, ingenious, ingenuous”--Huckleberry Finn was all three of these and a picaresque hero too. Epic protagonists go on quests by water (he brought in The Odyssey, The Aeneid)--was Huckleberry Finn an epic protagonist? Then we read Moby Dick--not all of it, but assigned chapters to read and think about and write--took weeks and weeks to do it. What was the meaning of these short chapters like “Brit,” and “The Try-works”--? These were little allegories, metaphors--Mr. Fosse introduced me to metaphors. He read Moby Dick aloud to us, brought up the differences in prose and poetry, talked about Moby Dick’s narrative opening, its metaphysical middle, pointed out the play-like quality of some chapters, how like a Shakespearian fool Pip was. He talked about Shakespeare’s influence on Melville, and assigned us all intensive close-reading assignments in Moby Dick. When school was over at 12:36 we had lunch. After lunch we had a time when we could do any activity and then sports. Mr. Fosse and Mr. Higgins invited some of us to read and study Oedipus Rex--just for fun --in the building we used for art and movies, and where all the lectures were. I soaked it all up like a sponge. I couldn’t get enough of it.

People noticed I got an A figuring out these chapters Mr. Fosse assigned us. People asked me what the meaning was of such and such a chapter and asked me to write it down for them. Soon I was ghost-writing essays for some of Mr. Fosse’s other students. This gave me a great boost in the ego. We studied The Tempest and Mr. Fosse gave me a nickname--Ariel. One day he sent me in the mail a poem by Hermann Melville called “Art,” beautifully illuminated (he was a master illuminator):


In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt--a wind to freeze;
Sad patience--joyous energies;
Humility--yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity--reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob's mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel--Art.

We graduated, and Mr. Fosse went around congratulating us: “You done good!”-- he was always very witty. But within months after graduation we got news that Mr. Fosse had died suddenly, of leukemia--he was only thirty-nine. Hundreds came to his service at Kents Hill, and each one of us had a story about how fundamentally he had affected us in giving us insight into our own hitherto unrealized capabilities. Every one of us remembered how he had told us that if he were to be killed in a random car accident that it should not be considered “tragic”-- tragic was a specific literary term used for and only to be applied to GREAT people--in literature, presumably. We all agreed he had been totally wrong--his truly was a tragic loss, because he truly was a great person, and we all knew it.

Mr. Fosse stayed with me always. As a junior in college in 1967 I wrote about Shakespeare’s influence on Moby Dick. For my Master’s thesis in 1976 I found common metaphors in Shakespeare’s King Lear, the Japanese Noh play Nishikigi,  Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and John Donne’s poetry. When I wrote my dissertation for my doctorate in 1994, I looked for metaphors, similes, and analogies in elementary science textbooks and trade books.  How often I have wished that I could have shared my poetry with him through the years; I imagined always how proud he would be of me, knowing how he introduced me to the language of poetry in the first place. Another thing--he had often wished that college students would engage in political activities instead of just in fraternity house pantie raids--which was all that happened in colleges back in his day. He died in 1961, and later during the anti-war and civil rights demonstrations of the late Sixties I realized his dream had come true, and felt the great irony of his having never seen it.

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