We all remember that special teacher who inspired us to learn or better ourselves.
This human interest story from the Chicago Tribune finds the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple connecting with his aging English teacher:
Their friendship: Pure poetry
Verse by verse, ex-student leads retired teacher out of darkness after stroke
By Manya A. Brachear
Photo by Chris Walker, Tribune
August 31, 2009
In the well-appointed drawing room of an Evanston retirement home one recent afternoon, Rev. Philip Blackwell sat beside his former teacher George Ariffe, poring over volumes of poetry that were dog-eared, creased and yellowed by the passing of time.
Ariffe tapped a page, prompting Blackwell to begin reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” with a cadence the teacher instilled in his pupil decades ago:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!
for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
Ariffe, who has great difficulty speaking and cannot read or write because of a stroke, listened intently, nodding his affirmation when Blackwell read the closing stanza.
Many of us have that teacher who left an indelible mark on our lives. For Blackwell, pastor of Chicago’s First United Methodist Church, that hero is Ariffe, his former high school English teacher.
Rather than merely read John Milton and William Shakespeare, Ariffe made his students memorize lines, believing they could draw value from the verses later in life.
In the days immediately after the stroke on April 13, the 85-year-old teacher struggled to find his words and the will to live. When Blackwell visited his former teacher for the first time four days after his stroke, Ariffe uttered only one sentence that Blackwell could comprehend: “I want to die.”
“This was one of those teachers that changed your life because they opened worlds you hadn’t imagined,” Blackwell said.
So he set out to do the same for his teacher, using the poetry they both treasured. “What I was looking for was a language he and I could share that was … significant,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell bought a copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” at a secondhand bookstore and read the verses when he returned to his teacher’s bedside on May 6.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
“It’s not my job to tell people whether they want to die or not,” Blackwell said. “I wanted him to know he was not outside the faith if he wanted to die and still had grand questions about why things are the way they are.”
It was the least Blackwell could do for a teacher who had encouraged him more than four decades earlier.
In 1960, Ariffe’s classroom was a sanctuary for Blackwell, the new kid at Libertyville-Fremont Consolidated High School, trying to establish an identity of his own.
“My junior year was really an awkward year,” Blackwell recalled. “There was an in-group, and I wasn’t in it.”
In Ariffe’s classroom, Blackwell memorized passages from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and Milton’s “On His Blindness.”
“I would say that George’s class helped to place me,” Blackwell said. “Having read all that Shakespeare and learned those poems and gone to see ‘Antigone,’ his class opened up some options for me that I went back and claimed.”
The following year, half the students at Libertyville-Fremont, including Blackwell, became the first senior class at Mundelein High School. Blackwell played trombone in the marching band, served on the student council and played football and basketball. He credits Ariffe for enabling him to memorize a script and star in the school play. He also graduated as valedictorian.
Meanwhile, Ariffe had embarked on his own adventure, taking a sabbatical to co-edit four volumes of English literature from the 5th to 20th Centuries. After helping to select what he believed were the quintessential works of English literature, he wrote commentaries and biographies of the authors.
Three days before Easter in 1967, Blackwell visited his favorite teacher to fill him in on his progress and his plans. A first-year student at Yale Divinity School, Blackwell was headed to England for an internship.
Ariffe presented him with a goodbye gift — autographed copies of his opus. Volume I had the longest inscription: “Very best wishes to my good friend and favorite clergyman, Phil.”
Though Blackwell was not yet ordained, the inscription assured him that his teacher approved of his career path. This year, the gift sparked a new chapter of their friendship.
On May 11, Blackwell unearthed the collection from his library and carried it to the Presbyterian Home in Evanston where Ariffe lay recuperating. Ariffe could not articulate his thoughts, but Blackwell would remind him that he once did by reading those words back to him. He started with Milton’s lament “On His Blindness,”composed before Milton wrote his masterpiece, “Paradise Lost.”
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
Ariffe seemed consumed by a darkness similar to Milton’s. Still insisting he wanted to die, he had refused food since entering the hospital.
“I’d always been struck both by the pathos of an artist who lost his capacity to create and then also the affirmation that you can serve even when you’re mute or inactive or sidelined in some way,” Blackwell said.
That following Sunday, May 17, Blackwell preached on the New Testament’s John 15, in which Jesus invites his disciples to be his friends. Blackwell told his congregation about his friend and beloved teacher.
“True friendship,” he said, “is abiding, not fleeting; it is deep, not shallow. It includes giving of one’s self to another and receiving what another person has to give to us.”
When Blackwell arrived by Ariffe’s bedside later that day, he learned the patient had started to eat. The pastor read Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” a poem about the persistent presence of God despite humanity’s failures to do right by him.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs
Blackwell continued to note a shift in Ariffe’s personality, a determination to recover that Blackwell had not sensed before. The new fighting spirit inspired him to read “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas on May 25.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
“I thought: ‘George does not have access to his vocabulary, but he and I share vocabulary in large part because he gave it to me — these poems,’ ” Blackwell said. “If I read back to him his vocabulary, not only might there be some meaning in it, it might be a technique for him to retrieve some capacity to speak.”
As the world outside has transformed from spring to summer toward fall, the poems have evolved too. Robert Browning’s “Prospice” was the first poem Blackwell read to Ariffe in May with the future in mind.
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!
Since then, words have slowly returned to Ariffe. Short simple sentiments occasionally roll off his tongue. But he frequently trips on the phrases “I wonder” and “I want,” never quite completing the thought after an hour of trying. A booklet of pictures and labels helps him communicate.
Blackwell and Ariffe don’t need that picture book. Ariffe recently surprised Blackwell with a hardcover copy of his anthology returned from his parents’ estate and inscribed to “Mom and Pop.” Blackwell now reads from that edition when he goes to see Ariffe.
One afternoon this month, Ariffe looked at the reporter in the room and clasped his hand to his chest. He had tried unsuccessfully for an hour to convey an important point. But now what Ariffe had to say rolled right off his tongue.
“This one’s the best,” he said, gesturing toward Blackwell. “I’m so glad.”
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune