The School Where I Studied as a Boy

Julius Joseph Gaspard Starck, “Mischief In The Schoolyard”

Friday

As I will miss my first St. Mary’s commencement in almost four decades tomorrow (excluding sabbatical years), I send out this Yehuda Amichai poem to my former students who will be graduating, as well as to all those others around the world about to matriculate. It’s that time of year when, like the Israeli poet, people look back at their schooling to figure out what it meant.

Amichai recalls what he didn’t learn as well as what he did. It’s a lovely idea. Even conscientious students like myself were unable to do all the reading, and of course we didn’t know the context out of which the works arose or the discipline’s wider discourse. Like Amichai gazing out of his classroom window, we sensed a landscape but didn’t realize that our instruction was kindling a “great love” that would last a lifetime:

The windows of a classroom always open
to the future, but in our innocence we thought
     it was only landscape
we were seeing from the window

When Amichai mentions “the two of us,” I assume he’s talking about the school. “Like everything else in Jerusalem,” it’s a museum containing holy mysteries, but he didn’t know this when he first climbed its rickety steps. I like the contrast between the early uncertain venturing out and the later solid knowledge.

After a lifetime of studying “the tree of knowledge,” he now understands better what his education was all about. He even sees the flaws, the “pests and parasites.” He will “go on studying till the die I die.”

At the moment, however, Amichai looks back, like D. H. Lawrence in “The Piano” or W. B. Yeats in “Among School Children.” Although no longer innocent because he has become “an expert on the botany of good and evil,” he focuses on where it all began. Year after year in the middle of May, I have seen my own students doing the same.

The School Where I Studied
I passed by the school where I studied as a boy
and said in my heart: here I learned certain things
and didn't learn others. All my life I have loved in vain
the things I didn't learn. I am filled with knowledge,
I know all about the flowering of the tree of knowledge,
the shape of its leaves, the function of its root system,
     its pests and parasites.
I'm an expert on the botany of good and evil,
I'm still studying it, I'll go on studying till the day I die.
I stood near the school building and looked in. This is the room
where we sat and learned. The windows of a classroom
     always open
to the future, but in our innocence we thought
     it was only landscape
we were seeing from the window.
The schoolyard was narrow, paved with large stones.
I remember the brief tumult of the two of us
near the rickety steps, the tumult
that was the beginning of a first great love.
Now it outlives us, as if in a museum,
like everything else in Jerusalem.

Previous Commencement Posts

2018 C. P. Cavafy: Sending Students out into the World

2017 Commencement a la Wordsworth

2016 Christopher Smart: My Head with Ample Square Cap Crowned

2015 Toni Morrison: Michelle Obama Tells Black Graduates to Soar

2015 Hamlet Instructs the Class of 2015

2014 Robert Creeley: Rituals of Commencement

2014 Martin Espada: Poetry in the Commencement Ceremony

2014 Derek Walcott: No Calendar Except for This Beautiful Day

2013  Steve Kowit: A Poem for Commencement

2012 Theodore Roethke: A Villanelle for Graduating Seniors

2011 Emily Dickinson: Brains Deeper Than the Sea

2011 Dorothy’s Advice for Lawyers

2010 Lucille Clifton: Children Commence, Parents Let Go

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