Halloween, 2002

Westover's Halloween Treat

Clearly, our school is the luckiest school on the planet -- well, maybe the second luckiest, if we count Jack's school. I have nothing to ascribe this incredible luck to other than the fact that Richard Thompson is one of the most generous men on the planet. When I asked him whether he might want to come back to Westover to do a Chapel presentation for us, I tried to be upfront about the very obvious downsides to the proposal:

[a] Chapel, which is an ecumenical, community based program of talks and reflections that occurs at Westover once a week on Thursdays, is very early in the morning -- 9:20 a.m., to be precise

[b] we couldn't afford to pay him even as much as we paid him last year [In fact, as it turned out, half the money to pay him was raised by the devoted efforts of a group of senior girls who baked and sold cookies with me. Because we called ourselves "BARD", that is "Bucks to Acknowledge Richard's Decency {in coming to do Chapel for us}", people at Westover have gotten in the habit of referring to RT this way, as in "So when is the Bard coming?" .. This has a nice ring to my ears, as the title is usually reserved for Shakespeare but, as a celtic term, is so clearly more apt for RT...].

[c] we couldn't have any production -- not only would sound and lights be inappropriate for Chapel, but also we simply couldn't afford to rent the equipment this time round.

[d] because Chapel takes place during a regular 40 minute period of our day, not only would we be asking him to do something rather above and beyond a regular performance, but we'd be asking him to do so within a very short timeframe -- as if to say, Be profound but pithy, and try to get some great songs in there too...

In fact, the more I thought about that last constraint, the more I fretted that no one could be expected to do what I was asking RT to do. Of course, I shouldn't have worried -- RT came through, and brilliantly. The girls loved him even more than last year [if such a thing is possible], because even though the performance [as a performance] was shorter and quieter, it was also just so genuine and thoughtful and so clearly meant just for them that they responded to it even more strongly. It was, in fact, just perfect as a Chapel. It started with no introduction, with RT just standing up in front of the assembled girls -- when he said, "Good morning" to them, they fairly deafened him by loudly replying in unison, "Good morning, Richard!" RT started right in by talking to them about choices, about how you get to crucial points in your life and have to make important decisions that will affect who you become, and then would sing songs that illustrated the different choices that people make that shape them and their lives -- political [the Taliban song], philanthropic [Alexander Graham Bell], emotional [Woods of Darney], personal [Wall of Death] -- this last one was particularly good, I thought, as he talked about himself, about when he'd been at school and made the choice to do music, so that at 14 he was in a band and driving back from gigs at 4 am, rolling right in to classes. He was using his own life to illustrate how choices are risky so you have to make them as if they matter; you have to mean them. He mentioned his great great aunt, the first woman doctor, and her suffragettism and how important that all is and shouldn't be taken for granted in making their own choices. He also threw in some songs just for fun -- My Daddy is a Mummy [that was a unanimous, all-school request that I'd told him about in advance], and then Oops I Did It Again, which he introduced so that even I, who expected it, didn't see it coming -- "This next one is a bit of a downer, but I know you'll bear with me -- words by T S Eliot, music by Shostakovich...." and then he sang just the first line and stopped, waiting for them to get the joke, which they did almost immediately -- in disbelief they burst into laughter, and then he blew them away with the rest of the song. They sang along by the last chorus -- that's the bit that Simon caught on tape and has put up on Beesweb -- and it was just unbelievably great. He would have ended right there, with the Britney, but since we had time I asked him for one more, so he did Word Unspoken [which they loved, so I'm very glad he did it -- many of the girls afterward asked to buy a cd with that song specifically, and then were disappointed when I told them it wouldn't be out for a few months yet].

As they did last year, they gave him a very loud and long standing ovation -- it would've gone on even longer, but a colleague and I started ushering them out to Red Hall for our all school coffee break, so that the girls would get a chance to see Richard and Simon before trotting back off to classes. I didn't get to hear what all he said to them as he signed cd's in Red Hall, because I myself was too busy selling the cd's to the kids, but I could tell that, compared to last year when most had been too diffident to approach him, they just felt entirely comfortable with him. He was very giving with them, very fatherly and kind, really gentle. All too quickly, the girls started clearing off for class, after we'd taken many pictures, including one of the BARD group that's destined for the yearbook. That was my cue to usher Simon and Richard off to class as well, to my junior English class in which we were studying Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" that day. Taking some unfair advantage of my teacherly authority, I asked the two of them if they wouldn't mind reading the poem aloud for the girls, assigning Simon the first 5 stanzas and Richard the last 4 ["For you two," I pointed out, "an English accent is just normal, but you must understand that for the girls it will be as if Donne himself is reading to them."] And indeed, after they'd both read beautifully and Richard had finished off the poem, an audible sigh was breathed round the room. I tried to lay off after that, asking the girls to do all the work of interpeting, but I couldn't resist at one point later on, when the girls were stuck at one passage, asking RT for input [one of my students chimed in, "Yes, what do you think, Mr. Thompson?"]. As I expected, he contributed brilliantly, being as articulate as he is insightful.

In every way, RT seemed not only his usual brilliant, funny self but warm and genuine, from beginning to end of his visit. The girls felt it; my colleagues felt it. One of our administrators, not known for her enthusiasm, shocked me by running out to talk to me after he'd gone -- "Does he have girls that age? How does he know how to be so sensitive to them, how to talk to them so well? He was just so wonderful!" She couldn't get over how well he'd been able to speak right to to them. And indeed, the more I think about how he was able to perform in a way which not only amazed the girls by his virtuosity [one girl raved, "It's like hearing ten guitars being played at once!!"] but touched them by the sincerity of what he was telling them, the more I conclude that I can't imagine anyone else being able to walk in to our Chapel and feel so much as if he were part of our community. The truth is that, though we have had outside speakers and occasional performers in before, the girls often observe that they prefer the Chapels that are done by Westover students and faculty, because outsiders just don't 'get' Chapel. But in Richard's case, the reverse is true - and maybe dangerously so! The girls have so embraced him as a member of their community that they now have trouble understanding that even one visit was a miracle -- "But why can't he come back more often?" one little freshman asked me innocently....

Jo Wood, English teacher, November 1, 2002