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Just recently I mentioned at the end of an entry the passing of a dear high school teacher of mine, Ralph Broten, and I attended and spoke at a memorial in his honor given by his brother Jim and his wife last week. Many people got up and spoke about how they enjoyed him- neighbors, co-workers, relatives- and all of them seemed to agree that he was exceptional but was a regular person, too. Since I spoke without anything written out I cannot repeat word-for-word what I said but after I finished I started thinking about some of the books I had discussed with him in later years, in correspondence, after my first poetry publication, Seasons of the Heart came out in 1988.
One book which came to mind is titled, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum which we mutually admired and so I reopened my copy the other day and reread this credo contained in the forward:
Story teller’s Creed
I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge.
That myth is more potent than history.
That dreams are more powerful than facts.
That hope always triumphs over experience.
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.
A summation of what I learned in Mr. Broten’s classroom is contained in that wonderfully concise few sentences. I hope I conveyed this to the group of teachers and neighbors assembled at the memorial although I didn’t read this- I read, from my latest book, a quote from James Jones which gave tribute without gushing. I spoke about the type of hero that Mr. Broten truly was and will be remembered for by myself as well as my fellow students. He was an organic hero. That is- he was capable of helping you imagine yourself executing great deeds and yet remaining accessible and as down-to-earth as he always conducted himself. That isn’t an easy task you know !
I didn’t just learn how to write and create in his class. I learned how to conduct myself as a human being and live successfully while keeping to my beliefs and convictions. In class he always presented us with thought and controversy provoking topics with a single quote or a short passage from classics. He never forced his philosophies upon us but when we left his class after these sessions we knew what his stand was and respected it.
A passage from the first idea in the Robert Fulghum book made me think so strongly about the impact that Mr. Broten made on my life that I must share it. It’s the basis of the book and it was the code that Mr. Broten always kept to and conveyed very well:
Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup- they all die. So do we.
And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned- the biggest word of all- LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a world it would be if we all- the whole world- had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it’s still true, no matter how old you are- when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.