Listen, my children, and you shall hear . . .
-- Paul Revere's Ride
"Mr. Collette is coming!"
Nine and ten year old boys are squirming at the rumor, and Miss Barlow, you can see, is losing track of her French lesson. She knows how this will go. The decks are being cleared for action. Textbooks are respectfully closed, fountain pens and inkwells capped, tablets placed in storage under desks, pencils dropped in the groove that keeps them from rolling onto the floor.
The headmistress steps through the door at the back. "Boys, we have a guest today." In our rising sigh of anticipation he steps to the front, and takes an easy perch on the edge of the desk. Miss Barlow has found a place on the side. We are assembled and composed: our little blue jackets with gold and grey trim, our grey shorts and stockings with the blue stripe at the top, our shirts and ties.*
"Now listen, boys, listen very carefully. Listen to the words. Listen to the sound of them."
And we do. He opens his book to the place marked.
"By the shores of Gitche-Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
There the wrinkled old Nokomis
Nursed the little Hiawatha,
Rocked him in his linden cradle,
Bedded soft . . . "
And I have gone soft. I am gone. But he has stopped now.
"Do you hear it, boys? Do you hear the beating of the lines? How many? How many beats to the line? Listen: by the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining . . . "
Someone shouts "Four!"
"Yes. Good. Four beats, every line. Listen some more. What is it like?" And we listened some more.
"Ishkoodah, with fiery tresses,
Showed the Death-Dance of the spirits,
Warriors, with their plumes and war-clubs,
Flaring far away to northward . . . "
"It's like a drum" says someone. "Good" says Mr. Collette.
That night I dream of falling stars and rising winds, spirits of forest and river, and of words that won't stay on the page but fly on my breath and on the four beats of my pulse.
He would come back to our school without warning; always the same commotion, the same attention, and a new song.
"Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink!" That night I carry the weight of the albatross, and cannot find rest until I remember to bless the slimy creatures of the sea.
And again. "The highwayman came riding -- riding -- riding -- " He waits while we dare not breathe. "The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door." And all night I strain, through the open windows of my bedroom, to hear those hooves coming up Banbury Road, North Oxford.
And hooves! yes, hooves!
"A hurry of hooves in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet."**
Oh yes, we could hear!
We could hear past the words, and past their sound to the thing, to the headlong gallop of the hero's mount that bore the fate of a nation. We could do this, because Mr. Collette had taught us to do it. Or I at least could do it, could not stop doing it, because Mr. Collette had taught me. (I don't really know about the others; I didn't really care.)
And every time Mr. Collette came to my school my dreams would change, and I would make my father buy me the book of a new poem so that I could memorize it, become the verse and then sing the song. And I'd tell my dad the things this piper had taught us.
Until my dad decided that this was a phenomenon. My parents invited William Collette to lunch one Saturday morning. He arrived on his bicycle and parked it by the front door, and there was a leisurely discussion. My father thanked Mr. Collette for being such a teacher, for catching the imagination of his burdensomely intelligent and rebellious boy. And Mr. Collette thanked him, and me, for my attention, and for giving him the sense that he was heard. And he had an idea: he asked my parents if I might be his guest on some Saturdays to see Oxford scenes that were part of his life.
For instance, on one of those spring Saturday mornings, blessed usually with English sunny intervals, this very young and my very old friend went punting on the river Cherwell. After suitable demonstration, I was permitted to take over, and caused only a few gentlemanly collisions in the midst of that tranquil stream.
William Collette was an Oxford schoolteacher, retired I suppose. There you have it. A little tall and slender, balding but not noticeably because the hair on his temples was cut short. Spectacles, of course, and patches at the elbows of his tweed jacket.
On the last expedition, William Collette revealed that he was a change-ringer in one of the spires of Oxford. He introduced me to his seven colleagues. Eight bell ropes came down through the ceiling. The task of these eight men was to ring the bells through a series of permutations lasting a quarter hour or more, never repeating themselves or leaving out a line, while not hanging themselves by their own bell-ropes.
My friend took me by spiral stairs to a room even higher than that one, where through a grate in the center of the floor I could watch the now quiet bells when they roused. A gallery ran around the tower, from which I could look down at Oxford in all directions. I marveled at the exactness of temperature, the greenness of greens, the seeming perfection, from this altitude, of ancient stone in haphazard order. Perhaps that is the moment in life when I have best understood English patriotism.
Then the bells started moving. I didn't hear bells, not like you hear them in a movie or a tourist video. It was neither tune nor permutation but a moaning, and the stone became liquid, the tower like the throat of a beast reacting to pain. I held on to the railing that now seemed flimsy, unsure that the writhing beast would not fling me into the town square. When the dust settled, and my friend brought me home to Banbury Road, I could not describe my experience. Now I describe it.
Once again the substance of a dream. Once again this mild and gentle man had shown me through a portal of uncanny. A strange friendship, and I the strange child who more than others could follow him to mysteries concealed by the tranquil life. Perhaps not so tranquil after all. In the quietest of country houses, there may be a wardrobe with no back, a conduit from tedium to immanence. That's what Lewis thought, and he left us Narnia.
*The uniform of North Oxford Preparatory School, where I did an equivalent of fourth grade while my father was a fellow at Queen's College, Oxford University (1955-56).
**See Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" and "Paul Revere's Ride," Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Noyes's "The Highwayman."