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Reflection: And so the teacher learns from his student

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2012 - A year and a half ago a friend asked if I’d be a mentor to a granddaughter interested in the news business. She was a high school junior at the time, and without giving this request too much thought, I said yes.

Afterward, I realized these arrangements sometimes are fraught with peril, but all things considered, saying “no” was quite out of the question. The grandfather is someone for whom I have high regard, and without his knowing it he has been a mentor to me for years. I agreed. Not to do so would have been the definition of ingratitude.

And so it came to pass that his granddaughter and I worked together from time to time during the next year and a half. The granddaughter, Isabelle Stillman, came into the office to observe what goes on (and what doesn’t!) in a growing news operation such as ours and listened carefully to my explanations and pontifications. One day I rode out to her house on my bike to deliver some books. I met her parents, and we had a good time around the breakfast table talking about all sorts of things, interesting things.

After spending time as an observer of news folks and finding us interesting, she asked if she could come to work for the Beacon to fulfill the requirements of the May project at her school, John Burroughs. We said, “Sure.” She hit the ground at a sprint when she came to work, and didn’t stop until her project time was up.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Isabelle and her friend and fellow journalist, Caroline Ludeman, were co-editors of Burroughs’ newspaper, The World, and this winter the two of them traveled to The Hague International Model United Nations (THIMUN), where they served as editors-in-chief of the official newspaper of the meeting, the THIMUN Tribune. Isabelle brought back copies of the paper for me, and they were uniformly impressive.

Sometime in recent years, Burroughs changed its commencement ceremony policy. In the past, someone from outside the school was invited to speak. Now, the commencement-address spotlight is on students. The speakers are chosen through a blind competition, and Isabelle and her classmate Samuel McHugh Schnabel were the winners.  

Sam Schnabel’s speech was commendable. Quite to the point of commencement, he talked about dealing with change and with coming to terms with losses great and small. Ceremonies such as this remind all of us of changes that press upon us, and how they can either confound us or serve to animate our lives one way or another. Losses can affect us deeply, some much more than others.

Thus, Schnabel’s speech could be taken entirely personally, especially when a loss had been experienced quite recently, and represented more than just leaving a beloved school. So congratulations are in order for Schnabel, and good wishes to him as he goes forth.

Graduation at Burroughs is clothed in hallows, and is conducted in a grassy amphitheater in the early hours of the evening. The preferred atmospheric aesthetic is a soft and luminous twilight, with gentle zephyrs caressing the trees. There was no such meteorological magic for the class of ’12. Graduation was chilly -- cold some would say. Isabelle’s grandmother fussed at me for showing up in a summer suit. Gray skies spit rain. Winds blew. School-colors blankets were distributed. There was grumbling.

But all of a sudden there was some magic, and that unpleasant situation seemed to change. The resplendent graduates entered, leaving in their wake a special brilliance that served to challenge the gloom and to send it packing. Boys no more, the young men stood tall in sporty white dinner jackets. The girls-no-more young women moved gracefully in white gowns of varying degrees of sophistication.

In my 18 months of so association with Isabelle I'd come to expect the extraordinary. She didn’t need my instruction. Besides, I think it is impossible to teach someone to write with grace and facility and inspiration. Although I can give writing lessons having to do with technique, I could no more teach someone to write with genuine grace and facility and inspiration than I could be taught to take a swing at Pierre de Fermat’s “Last Theorem.” 

At the Beacon, the writer presented herself. She was entirely adaptable and in the tradition of good reporters wrote stories about all sorts of subjects – a cat shelter, a film festival, a commemorative sculpture, homelessness, a hospital benefit. They never read as if they were approached as anything but the central subject of the moment in the writer’s world. In the tradition of good writers, she wrote with warmth, humor, compassion, intellectual fascination.

When I learned she was to give one of the commencement speeches I was ready to hear something good with the By Isabelle Stillman byline, but I never expected to have the satisfaction of hearing something as powerful as her speech, something mature beyond the speaker’s years, something to carry with me long after leaving Price Road in Ladue.

As good speeches should, hers began with expressions of gratitude to parents, teachers and classmates. As commencement speeches should, it reckoned with the melancholy of departure. Like Schnabel’s speech, the imponderables of change were acknowledged.

But what distinguished the speech was the writer/speaker’s grasp of the importance of context and her evident respect for history and for inhaling the kind of inspiration that comes from reading good books and learning from those who wrote them. These writers who created books such as those are the truly gifted mentors, not plodders in the commencement ceremony audience who toil diligently and plow straight furrows but never really turn new and more fertile ground.

To give her speech the heft it needed Isabelle returned to plays and to books she’d obviously read, and from them she took not the Bartlett’s-Familiar-Quotations sort of references but yeasty sentences, sentences rich in ideas and blasting forth the glory of language like an orchestra of cornets and trumpets.

It was an eclectic and virtuosic display, weaving the measured journey through six years of preparatory school with words chosen from writers the speaker admires, their sentences plucked from pages not only for their appropriateness but also for their consequential beauty.

In the course of her address we encountered once again an old, old friend whose influence extends from my youth to Isabelle’s, Holden Caulfield. In Isabelle’s speech Caulfield is catapulted back in time to rub elbows with Julius Caesar and Caius Cassius Longinus, who plotted Caesar’s assassination. Soon, along come Charles Dickens and “Great Expectations” and also Henry David Thoreau, who tells us those castles we construct in the sky are exactly where they should be.

She moved with ease from Geoffrey Chaucer back to J.D. Salinger and on to Nathaniel Hawthorne and T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. She pays poor, tormented F. Scott Fitzgerald the honor of having urged her to run faster and to stretch her arms farther.

“And as we continue to journey page after page, chapter after chapter,” she said, “so we will journey through our own growth of mind and character. So here’s to the class of 2012: congratulations, best of luck, and thank you so much.”

I’ve always believed the mentor learns more from the protégé than the other way around, and certainly that is true in this situation.

So thank you, and best of luck,  Isabelle Stillman. I’m so lucky to have had the privilege of learning from you. You’ve made me think, and you’ve made me very, very proud.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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