Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gentlemen of the Old School

Vintage post card (1934) of Trenton Central High School

I have often remarked in my blog posts, as all of us surely do in our daily lives, the surprising outcomes arising from the intersection of disparate incidental circumstances.  Thus it is that two of my more whimsical roles—necrologist and recreational swimmer—lead me to an unhappy meditation on the decline of the American high school.

I am the current Orator of the Fellows of the Medieval Academy of America—a position only slightly below the pay-grade of Melville’s “late consumptive Usher to a Grammar School”.  One of my jobs is to prepare for presentation at the annual meeting brief memorials of famous medievalists who have died in the year previous.  I leave in the morning for this year's meeting in Phoenix, so that I have been thinking about such people, one of whom was Charles Muscatine of the University of California, who died about a year ago.

Muscatine was an eminent Chaucerian, the author of an important book on Chaucer and the French Tradition.  I knew him fairly well, though not intimately.  One of the things that most struck me about him was his breadth of education, his ability to chat in an interesting fashion on any topic that happened to come up.  Well, the man did have three Yale degrees.

Professor Charles Muscatine (1920-2010)

In addition to necrology, I’m into recreational swimming.  I try to begin each day with an early morning plunge.  There are a few us who practice this form of masochism daily, one of whom is a man named Norman who, I now have excellent reason to believe, is very likely to be eighty-eight or eighty-nine years old.  To reach the swimming pool in the Dillon Gym from the locker rooms you go down two levels, five short zig-zag flights of stairs, with the heavily used machine room at the midpoint.  Almost always three or four of us get there early and must sit on the stairs outside the locked pool door, invigorated by the medicinal aroma of the floor disinfectant, until the lifeguard arrives and opens it—in theory at 6:45 but in practice sometimes a little earlier, sometimes a little later.  The descending stairwell becomes a kind of echo chamber that exaggerates the sounds of footfalls and, especially, of the noisy turnstile at the entrance of the weights room.  It sounds sort of like the soundtrack of every prison movie you have ever seen.

It is difficult among the reverberations for the early birds--early fish?-- to conduct conversation.  It is especially hard for Norman, in whom the circumstances induce a kind of generalized tinnitus.  Nonetheless we do pursue some interesting semi-naked, half-heard seminars.  The other day Norman said the acoustic situation reminded him of Poe’s poem “The Bells,” of which he then proceeded to cite some relevant lines from memory:
…Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells…
He added that he had memorized reams of poetry in school.  “I got a great literary education,” he said.  “I loved it”.   I already knew that, actually.  I had by then enjoyed years of Norman’s casual erudition, but only now grasped its source.  It turned out he was referring to his years at Central High School in Trenton, N.J.
After the swim we continued the theme back in the comparative quiet of the locker room.  After more praise for his English teachers, he turned to the rich intellectual camaraderie he had enjoyed with some of his fellow students.  An idea suddenly struck him.   “There was one guy,” he said, “who later became a Chaucer professor, like you.  Did you ever hear of Charlie Muscatine?”  I had to tell him that I not only knew him, but was at that very moment tasked with writing his obituary.  His death came as news to Norman, who had not seen him in more than half a century.  “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.  “He was a really good student…and a terrific singer.  He had the lead role in the class opera.”  Yes, you heard me.  In the pre-war period the senior class at Trenton Central High School each year mounted a musical drama! 

Central High in Trenton is not unknown to me.  Today it is a classic urban drop-out factory and blackboard jungle.  Its graduation rate is pathetic.  Over the years Princeton University has had numerous ineffectual, feel-good “outreach” programs for its faculty and students.  I personally had the experience of teaching some classes there.  One day I followed my usual practice of placing my watch on the podium to keep track of the time.  While my back was turned to write something on the board somebody stole the watch!  (Tempus fugit).  I don’t much like sending my readers off to Wikipedia, but I recommend its article on Central High, which is of the genre sad but true.  As I tried to suggest in another post, the school’s problems are beyond the reach of any of the solutions being proposed by our education experts—especially the solution of throwing money at them.

Things were very different in 1932, when Central High was proudly opened as a minor architectural miracle and one of the notable cultural ornaments of central New Jersey.  This is the place that Norman, aged about sixteen, was learning that Poe’s “Bells” was “…a kind of phonic experiment, in which the sounds themselves convey concrete ideas, as in the line What a gush of euphony voluminously wells…”  and young Charles Muscatine was building the foundation for a distinguished scholarly career.