This essay was edited, discussed, and supported by every student in my senior English elective class, Art of the Essay, who deserve their names alongside mine in the byline. I am grateful to have such stellar students:
Sophia Chauvin, Sam Cole, Kianna Lynch, Sammy Pickering, Lila Roy, Spencer Shample, Cole Shelgren, Greg Stohrer, Ryan Sullivan, Neale Walsh, Emma Whall, Amber Williams, Chris Yates
My life changed the day after Thanksgiving, 1983, when two policemen in shiny boots clacked up our front walkway and told my family our father was dead. A sophomore in high school, I would never be the same; that split second realization of my new reality molded me into the person I remain 34 years later. From that moment on, I would never again react to situations with the same attitude. Yet in tragedy, I found two divergent paths: to lose my father in the middle of my volatile teenage journey was to lose the magnetic north of an already off-kilter, adolescent compass; on the other hand, to experience sudden loss of that magnitude was to provide me with resilience to rebound from life’s pitfalls. While that day is not one I think about in every action I take, I am quite sure that moment, at least subconsciously, guides every reaction I have to challenging situations all these years later. Through struggle, one needs resilience to get through life’s rough patches, and “the company of the good” feeds your soul with the strength to muster that resilience.
Whenever I approached our avocado-colored refrigerator in that same childhood home, I was confronted by a grid of two-inch by two-inch, cream-colored ceramic magnets, each with its own hand-painted saying. These were not deep quotes or clever idioms, but cheesy little sayings that parents drill into their children’s heads. In my case, this brainwashing worked, as I still remember them decades later. Sayings like, “You have to be odd to be number one,” or “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” stuck with me. After being stunned by those police officers on that Friday morning in 1983, the tile I always slid to the center of the fridge when I reached for the ketchup was the one that read: “Together is a wonderful place to be.” As a teenage boy, I would never admit that maudlin ritual to anyone, although I’m certain my best friend, Tony, caught me once, but he was gracious enough to pretend he hadn’t. After the loss of my dad, together is where I wanted to be, but we’d never be together again.
We’ve been asked to address the theme of “gratitude” in this 1791 letter, and I have struggled with this topic. I found myself drowning in clichés and hard-pressed to articulate the reasons for, or sources of, my gratitude. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The soul dries up without the company of the good,” by which he meant our soul—our spirit, our core, our ethos—needs to be nourished by others. While it sounds contradictory, I believe that our inner essence is molded as much by the company we keep as it is by ourselves. Especially in difficult times, we rely our friends and family to help us persevere.
When I first heard it, Gandhi’s wisdom sounded like a pretty good line in a Bob Dylan tune. Dylan’s 33rd studio album, and his last to reach #1 on the charts, is called “Together Through Life.” Released in 2009, the second cut on that album is titled “Life is Hard,” to which many of us would answer, ‘ain’t that the truth.’ Each chorus of that song ends: “Admitting life is hard, without you near me.” While this is a love song, life beyond love can be hard and lonely, but in the ‘company of the good,’ life’s challenges get easier to manage. It is one reason I say to the Upper School students on day one of each year, “Do not go your high school journey alone.” Perhaps I should just say,“Together is a wonderful place to be.”
If I had to pen my own refrigerator-ceramic-tile-worthy lyric to add to Dylan’s love song refrain, I might write: “Everything is better when I’m with you.” While I’m not necessarily a people person who thrives in big groups, I do enjoy the company of the good. In fact, I crave it. While we all need solitude at times, I prefer to share experiences with others. Hiking in a group or a one-man ascent? Find me a climbing crew! Solo ballad or five-instrument jam at a coffeehouse? Surround me with some bandmates! Everything's better when I’m with you, and in the company of the good, our souls are filled up, rather than dried up.
There also exist plenty of negative refrigerator tiles to support this, not the least of which is, “Misery loves company.” This is true, and a major reason why our friends and family can support us in difficult times. The good company Gandhi refers to, however, is more likely to support and remind us of our positive traits than commiserate with us about our challenges. They listen, they digest, they reflect and react, and they give us a different viewpoint than the one we’ve been dwelling on.
When I think of Dylan, I think of soul, and at a pivotal point in his career, he took his lead from Gandhi. Originally a solo, acoustic artist, Dylan decided that he preferred playing and performing in an ensemble, infamously going electric with a backing band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965 where he was greeted with boos. Can you imagine that? A celebrated musician—a poet and artist, really—who 50 years later would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, getting booed by his “fans” because he enjoyed the stage more in the company of the good rather than by himself? Maybe his bitter memory of that night in Rhode Island is why Dylan didn’t show up to claim his Nobel Prize at the ceremony in Oslo last year. Or maybe he just wanted to be left alone.
In May of this year, Caroline Kennedy and her family recorded a video on the eve of what would have been John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday. She admits: “I’ve thought about him and missed him every day of my life, but growing up without him was made easier thanks to all the people who kept him in their hearts.” Kennedy was assassinated in November, and while this is typically a month for giving thanks, along with the Kennedys, it has also been my “cruelest month” (T.S. Eliot) since I was fifteen years old. While my old man was certainly no JFK, he was my old man, and I, too, have missed him every day of my life.
At Berwick Academy, our greatest resource is our faculty; on this campus, I am constantly in the company of the good. We are blessed with the most attentive group of educators who will drop everything in their own busy lives to care for the needs of their students or a peer. It astounds me to what lengths my colleagues will go to support our community members facing challenges. I don’t know if we could do that without having experienced our own struggles, which prepared us to help others during theirs. When we share our struggles with the company of the good, we often hear something along the lines of ‘been there, done that,’ followed by a shared experience that makes our own challengesa little easier to manage. I am grateful for my colleagues and what they do for our school community, and we would be a lesser place without each and every one of them.
In an attempt at resiliency, for 34 Novembers I have tried to bury my loss by surrounding myself with friends. I have discovered that resiliency is not born from the mind or the heart, but rather from deep in one’s soul, which needs good company to be tapped and emerge. This month, I am grateful for the people around me on this campus, as well as those who have surrounded me since 1983. In the turbulent times that have risen along with the dawn of the millennium, I hope we can reflect on our challenges and be grateful that we can use them as springboards of resilience, all in the company of the good.