On Frost’s Mending Wall and Knowing the Neighbors
by Timothy Bakland '94, Head of School
One of the great blessings in walking the Waring campus on any given day is the poetry you see and hear and feel all around you. Poetry in all the senses, of course—art, music, equations and labyrinths—but, often times, those actual, beloved poems you once read some years back, and then again some years later, those poems whose fragments and meters are still with you somewhere, tugging at at the well-worn sleeves of time and memory.
Oliver, Hughes, Rumi, Dickinson, sonnets, songs, odes, ballads, meditations, haiku, riddles … These are everywhere at Waring. They are in classrooms and labs, in our mathematical formulae, in the robots of our Waring Industrial Park, the discourse of debate, on our theater stage and athletic fields, in All-School Meeting where seniors just this Tuesday spoke on their favorite personal works of art, in the hallway outside of Mrs. Cahill’s office, and, even sometimes right out here at carpool pickup. On a recent spring day for me, it was in the Waring Business Office that I was re-acquainted with the classic poem, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost.
It should never surprise anyone to find such things as poetry in Waring’s Business Office. This is Waring after all; we are all lifelong teachers and learners: and there’s much more to our administrative team than accounts payable and balance sheets. In this case, the allusion to Robert Frost was in an article passed along to me by Jackie Cooper, who manages our books alongside our administrative rock, Jeanne Havens.
The article Jackie passed along relates to Independent Schools and new building projects, certainly an area of keen interest to Waring and to me these days. The author Jeffrey Shields, President of the National Business Officers Association, writes of “Knowing the Neighbors,” positing that independent schools too often underestimate both the positive and negative impacts that new construction has on our neighbors—in Waring’s case, the residents of Standley Street and Common Lane, and of course the City of Beverly, our neighboring towns, and so forth. The article is a good reminder of the need to keep school neighbors close during a building process, to communicate about construction timelines, road closings, traffic delays, noise, and then to foster connections with the community well beyond the project’s completion. The author talks about NIMBYism, the neighborly phenomenon known as “not in my backyard”, and a school’s obligation to work creatively with neighbors and town officials at every step during a building project. And what an opportunity Waring has in this Passive House building to go far beyond good the neighborly heads-up and to venture out into the world as a pioneer in a cutting-edge standard of energy sustainability.
What really caught my eye in this article, though, was the author’s final statement, a calling to revisit Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”, which famously concludes with the ironic refrain “Good Fences make Good Neighbors”. With a simple allusion to Frost, the author makes the requisite reminder to be mindful of those “barriers that can keep neighbors from understanding each other.” As you step out into the world, seniors, I know that you will join our alumni—those here today and those all around the world, who listen, lead, design, tend, mend, crunch life’s numbers, and continually return to the poetry we hear and see all around us at Waring.
As for the poem at hand, Frost’s Mending Wall: We know all too well that walls are much in the news these days… But, why is it—really—that a National Business Association bigwig has invoked Robert Frost? And perhaps more importantly (for, in good Waring fashion, we should always refer directly to the text): what does Frost have to say about walls and neighbors, and what can we all—and especially you, our graduating seniors—glean from Frost’s lines?
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
What is ostensibly a straightforward topic—the deterioration of the narrator’s stone walls during the winter ground freeze, and the pesky hunters who make matters worse—is shrouded in mystery in Frost’s lines. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. . .”; and something else there is altogether that “no one has seen or heard.”
Until the coming of every spring thaw, the narrator’s relationship with his stone wall and its degeneration is one of things unseen, unheard—his relationship is one of his own mind and ruminations. It’s as if Frost’s narrator wakes from a state of winter hibernation and now is only able to make sense of his surroundings through poetic verse.
The stone wall plot only thickens when we meet the narrator’s neighbor:
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
This poem is filled with irony of course, not the least of which that these two neighbors are helping each other build a dividing wall between them. Interestingly, it is the narrator who seeks out his neighbor each year to mend the wall, to walk along the line and tend to the very stone that the narrator himself points out has no practical use as a barrier. And still, these two neighbors “set the wall between [them] once again”, the narrator explaining that they “use spells” to make the stones balance, all in some kind of “out-door game.” We are in a sense, and in true Waring fashion, asked by this poetry both to embrace an object and to question it all at once; to engage really, on the questions that surround a thing; an exercise in which you, seniors, have gained good early mastery and are now called on to continue employing as you examine a good life lived with others.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do [fences] make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."
What do we make of this mischief, these spells, these might-be-elves, this out-door game? Why a poem on mending walls when, in this case, it seems there is no case for most of the wall in the first place? Why spend 45 lines speculating on what might be destroying a stone wall, while at the same time going about the business of mending that same, useless wall?
The answers of course do not rest in the objects themselves. No school building—even perfectly designed, no border wall carefully defined—will answer life’s difficult questions. And, as Waring students and these seniors have shown us in dialogue of every day: there is no single refrain upon which to call, no father’s saying on which to blindly rely. There were times this year, seniors, when you pushed our limits, questioned our boundaries, caught us by surprise, maybe even found us muttering old fatherly refrains. What did you learn in those moments?
As we ponder the utility of fences as well as the ways of neighborly relations, we have an amazing opportunity at Waring, just as the business office article predicts, in our mending of and our tending to the walls old and new at Waring. The envisioning of our school building where Waring’s longtime gatehouse will newly coexist with a Passive House structure asks us all to engage with Frost’s question of how we interrelate, where our pines meet our apple orchard, how our whimsy and imagination (maybe even elves? — maybe not elves) overcome the clichés of old-stone savagery.
It is well beyond cliché and old-stone savagery, seniors, that you have helped move the Waring dialogue; As Robine said just the other day, you have led the school with energy and grace from this fall’s Camping Trip to the recent Senior Soirée, you have led in your Tutorials as the bearers of school culture, helped found advocacy groups like WIDA, spearheaded Women’s Week at Waring, and effected positive changes at Waring through your ability to look well beyond objects, and toward a way of being and relating. We’ve heard in our senior speeches just now, a Waring of pottery on Sundays, of classes that spill out upon courtyards of azaleas and daffodils, and the Waring that some of us see both at dawn and at dusk. And oh, the poetry that these seniors have seen and heard all around them.
I hope you will agree, seniors, that whatever the NBOA author’s intent in alluding to Mending Wall, Robert Frost’s poem is not a poem about a stone wall, or a stance on whether walls are good or bad in themselves. This poem is not so much about fences or their existence, but rather about how we live, how we imagine, and how we relate to each other. Frost’s poem is really about two roads diverging into two worlds: the one, the world of the narrator, a world of imagination, dream, mischief, game-playing, fancy, a world that could be; the other, the world of the neighbor, one bounded by cliché, a world on repeat, a world of what simply has been and is. The narrator’s world is echoed in those words of Mary Oliver, and her “bride married to amazement, [her] bridegroom taking the world into [his] arms.”
We have all around Waring both walls real and imagined: stone and property lines along Standley Street, Common Lane, Branch Lane, and the woods beyond our fields and stream, those borders in contrast with a school that seeks to make long connections across our roads and streams and property lines. For you, seniors, your neighbors will be new classmates, roommates, suitemates, workmates, diverse partners home and abroad where you’ll be members of ensembles of every kind: families, teams, orchestras, workplaces, affinity groups, architectural design firms, Waring alumni. . .
Within Waring itself are walls and boundaries—our age groups: Core, Groups 1-5, and classifications of Faculty, Administration, Trustees, Parents, Alumni, Academic Departments, 1st Period, Focus Flex, all of these dividers and boundaries that exist together with Waring’s philosophy of mixed age learning, co-curricular teaching, Student Teachers, Teacher Students, adults on a first name basis, a delicious world not of borders but of ideas … and maybe, I could say: elves. A world not simply of what is, but what could be.
Seniors: what could be…? What is it that you hear in the poetry of today and yesterday, in Frost, Oliver and beyond? And What is it you plan to do, seniors, with your one wild and precious life?
Class of 2019: May good fences not for you good neighbors make. More importantly, may you not be stuck in a time or fixated on single outcomes— as was Frost’s old-stone savage who prattled off his cliché refrain. Rather, may your minds be well free of the mere quotidian life; and may you, with your many good neighbors to come, dare to look far past the edges of your fences, well beyond the orchard limits, toward the boundless world of your imagination.