To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Elven King

I want to tell you about summer at the school. In some ways it was simply a third semester (we never called them trimesters) in that we had classes and the same rhythm of campus life went on. There was meditation, then breakfast, when the whole campus got together over miso soup, oatmeal, sweetrolls, and eggs, then blocks of time for classes, campus work (I was still on the cleaning crew), or whatever independent projects the Masters had us working on. Lunch was informal; you could just go in to the dinning hall and get a sandwich, some soup, or a salad any time between noon and four. The bread was homemade and just amazing. We ate dinner with our dorm-mates or in various other small groups, like the Wednesday therapy groups. You could pick up food for dinner at the dining hall kitchen or prepare your own. In the evenings there was always homework, but there were also talks, workshops, parties, and sitting up with a bottle of mead late into the night, talking about everything in the world. Yes, mead; even when we did what I guess are pretty normal college-kid things, like procrastinating our homework over alcohol, we did it our own way, with mead made from the honey of our own bees. By July the previous year's hard cider was pretty much gone.

All of this was pretty much like the rest of the year. There were two big differences. First, very few semester-long courses were offered during the summer. Some years none were. Instead there were workshops, intensives, seminars, and the expectation that we would have chosen most if not all of our Masters and would be working on assignments from them. The other major difference was that the campus was full of children.

I've said how the school was run on a shoe-string, how tuition was kept incredibly low by a habit of using money as rarely as possible. But we did need some cash, and tuition didn't quite cover it. So there were a couple of cash-cow programs on campus, like occasionally renting out space for conventions and meetings and weddings and so fourth. The biggest of these projects, though, was the summer camp. We charged a thousand dollars per kid per week, which really isn't that bad--it's about normal for that sort of thing--except when you consider that the Masters themselves got only ten thousand a year (plus room, board, health insurance, and membership in a community money can't buy). The kids lived in tents out near the orchards, and students who wanted experience working with kids looked after them; they were paid in academic credit, not money.

In the mornings, the kids worked on the farm with Sara, which might possibly have violated child labor laws, but they did have fun and they learned a lot, and they got to eat some of the produce. In the afternoons they could pick among any of several activities, from archery to hiking to fishing or canoeing down at the lake two miles away. It was a fairly ordinary summer camp, and for the most part the school itself didn't mix much with them. The exception was the Dead Poet's Society.

I'm sure you've seen, or at least heard of the movie, so you probably have a basic idea of what Dead Poet's Society meetings were; groups of people meeting outdoors at night for the magic of words. In our case, the secret was no deeper than the fact that the group was by invitation only, and like everything else on campus, if you were not already involved no one would tell you anything. But it was not against the rules--it was organized by one of the Masters; my teacher, Charlie, who was a writer as well as a naturalist and a gardener.

The arrival of the campers gave Charlie the opportunity to engage in the kind of fun the real secrecy  of breaking rules provides, for while the group still wasn't against any rules, the campers did not know that. His grandnieces  and -nephews functioned as his operatives in this, for they attended the camp every year for the entire six weeks and were in on the joke. They would lead other children in sneaking out after bed-time and making their way out to to the meeting, wherever it was, lit usually by citronella torches or candles, to share poetry with mysterious grown-ups dressed in hooded cloaks. You weren't allowed to attend in the summer if you worked with the kids during the day--the illusion of transgression had to be perfect. Sometimes a camper would object to the sneaking out and tell on the young poets, so there would have to be a big show of them getting in trouble. The miscreants would be called out, lectured to, and then sentenced to spend their free time helping Charlie in the garden, a punishment calculated to be no punishment at all.

I was a member of the Society, so I got to be one of the mysterious hooded men in the torchlight. It was an absolute blast--but the kids didn't always think so. It wasn't really a children's event--the poetry was often long, difficult, or even frightening, and we didn't do much interpretation of it for them. We were not camp counselors, we were grown-ups, doing grown-up things, to which the children were invited as a special privilege. Some of them were as young as six. Most of them never came back, but maybe one in ten did. Some kids came to Society meetings every year for all eight years and Charlie got to watch them grow up. He said, of them, that they would bear watching. They were like the children in Irish folk-tales who spend time in fairy hills, or who fall asleep with their ears to the ground, listening to fairy music. The question with such children was always whether they became different because of fairy magic, or were they different to begin with, and fairy magic gave them what they needed to have a full life? Charlie wouldn't speculate, but he was, to the campers, the Elven King.

Most of them never even knew his name.

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