Listen my children and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five; Hardly a man is now alive Who remembers that famous day and year. He said to his friend, "If the British march By land or sea from the town to-night, Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch Of the North Church tower as a signal light,-- One if by land, and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm Through every Middlesex village and farm, For the country folk to be up and to arm."
Many of you will recognize this as the first stanza of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. To me I remember it as one of the special benefits of having my Father as a teacher.
I went to a very small school (there were 49 in my graduating class) in southern rural Michigan. My Dad had been a teacher at that school since the year I was born. My Grandfather was a Preacher and the County Commissioner, my other Grandfather had been a blacksmith in town, and my Great Grandfather had built the flour mill in the next village. Many of the kids in my class had similarly deep roots in that town. Newcomers were those whose parents had not been born there.
This town during the mid 40’s to early 60’s when I was growing up could have come straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, at least on the surface. My Dad saw the world was changing and everyone, especially the kids he was teaching were growing up in a world very different than the one he knew. His hope was that ‘his kids’ would be able to walk into that new world armed with all the skills and knowledge he could give them. No longer was knowing how to farm or run the family business in town going to be enough. His kids, if he had anything to say about it, would be as well rounded and ready to learn and adapt to what ever may come as any kid from a big city.
One of his innovations was a class for the Ninth Graders (Freshmen) that he called Sociology. I have tried for years to think of a better name for that class, since it had nothing to do with the Sociology classes I took in college. What this class did was teach life skills – those that we would need to go out in the world, and those skills which Dad considered important but were not taught elsewhere.
There was one class where he taught ‘Table Manners’. Not the keep your elbows off the table and don’t comb your hair at the table kind of manners which he assumed that their parents had taught, but what to do when you find yourself as a real Formal Dinner. . .which fork to use, and what all those plates and glasses are for. Another time he showed a short movie of a ballerina and then showed game films of the football game. That class was connecting the athletic skill, grace and body mechanics in common to both endeavors. We never knew what was going to be the lesson or the presentation when we walked into class. To say the syllabus was eclectic would be to say a rainbow is just colorful.
One Monday we walked into class and on his desk was a human skull – and Dad was not in the room as he usually was.
I KNEW what was coming: Dad never let me know ahead of the class what was being taught, nor gave me extra help at home – if I needed help with homework from any of his classes, I had to go to Mom. He was way too careful not to show favoritism to me. There was a rule in his class – no chewing gum – I was the ONLY student who ever had to stay in the room during lunch hour for chewing gum. But I digress. The skull on the desk meant one thing – he was going to totally embarrass me.
That day, Dad walked into class after the bell had rung – walked up to the desk and sat on one corner, looking at the skull, he said:
That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were Cain's jaw-bone, that did the first murder! It might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o'er-reaches; one that would circumvent God, might it not? . . . Or of a courtier; which could say 'Good morrow, sweet lord! How dost thou, good lord?' This might be my lord such-a-one, that praised my lord such-a-one's horse, when he meant to beg it; might it not? . . . Why, e'en so: and now my Lady Worm's; chapless, and knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade: here's fine revolution, an we had the trick to see't. Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with 'em? mine ache to think on't. . . . There's another: why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha? . . . This? . . . Let me see. (Takes the skull) Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing. . . . Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' the earth? . . . And smelt so? pah! (Puts down the skull)
The students were quiet – some recognized this as Hamlet’s words, but all of us felt the majesty of the work – this was our introduction to Shakespeare. And, to my astonishment, I was not embarrassed….I was in awe, I had no idea that my Dad could do something like that and how moving it was. He then explained that in college he needed to memorize this to join his Fraternity (TKE) and he was very lucky that his teachers had taught him, from the one room school where he started and continued through the very School we were now attending, the skill of memorization. He then began teaching the unit on memory and learning. We learned how to learn in that class – and then he gave us our assignment.
We were to memorize the Gettysburg Address and excerpts of two works on a list he gave to us. As I recall, they were from The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, Thanatopsis, The Preamble to the Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, and several other which I have forgotten in the 50 years which have passed. We were then to recite our selections before the class.
Much to our amazement, we all completed our memorization and recitals. Little did the rest of the kids know that my assignment at home was to memorize and recite to my parents ALL of the selections.
We all grew in that class – and much to Dad’s delight most of us went out in to this new world and did well. We became doctors, nurses truck drivers, lawyers, professional musicians, teachers, dentists, police officers, business owners, engineers, mothers and fathers, and many other life paths, but underlying whatever we did was the one piece of advice Dad gave to all of his kids, “In life do what your passion leads you to do – but strive to be the best at it. If you become a ditch digger, be the best ditch digger there ever was.”
Next February, 2010, Dad would have been 100 years old. His legacy continues and his ‘kids’ have dug some very awesome ditches in this world and we can thank a very big teacher from a very small school who encouraged each of us to make our own Midnight Ride.
To me he was just my Dad….to the kids at the three schools where he taught; he was Fred B Ambler, Teacher, Principal and Football Coach.