Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cliff Rogers - In Memoriam

Marel Rogers, a classmate of mine at Kent School honored me by inviting me to say a few words about her husband Cliff Rogers and teaching at a memorial service for Cliff at their home this past Saturday, 10/17. It was a lovely service, with a small group of former students and former hockey players there. We gathered outdoors near a young maple tree planted to remember Cliff.
I studied Greek for five years at Kent School. One sentence in to what ought to be a fond recollection of Cliff, I’ve already misled you. To employ the verb “studied” is errant, perhaps even grossly errant. I foundered, floundered, and flopped around - my head barely above water thanks to Cliff’s benevolence for four of those five years.
I began my encounter with Greek as a Second Former, an eighth grader. Since I’d tested well enough in English, the summer before my arrival Kent offered me the opportunity to begin studying Greek. Vain, flattered, woefully uncomprehending, and eager to please my parents, I said yes. (My parents got to say I was studying Greek.)
I began my first year under the tutelage of Basil Handford, a kindly English gentleman lured out of retirement to teach Classics at Kent. He did it well and eventually a dorm at the Girls School was named after him. There was one other boy in my Form taking Greek along with me. Willis Meigs, who become one of those lost in action at Kent a little over a year later for some now forgotten malfeasance. Together we were thrown into a class of 5th Formers (juniors) who were by then embarking upon their study of at least a third language. They had brains, maturity, and the experience of how one might go about learning a language on their side. I thought you simply learned the Greek alphabet, memorized the vocabulary and arranged the result the same way you would English. What were these declensions all about? And then conjugations? Plus whatever was in the back half of our School Greek Grammar text. I didn’t get it then. I can’t even remember what is was now. The class moved ahead swiftly while my immersion in the language was to sink into a whirlpool of frustration and despair.
Taking pity on me, Mr. Handford let me pass, or rather passed me along. Better perhaps had he exercised mercy and concluded the endeavor at the end of the year. The following year I entered a classroom in the basement of the Schoolhouse, took my seat at a large table presided over by Mr. Rogers (called Buck by everyone else – why I was still to learn) and continued my Greek experience.
Cliff was quick to discover, indeed he may have already known, that my Greek experience required extensive remediation. So began a lengthy period of tutorials to bring me up to speed. I never really gained full momentum over the next four years despite Cliff’s patience and encouragement. Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, the New Testament, Plato and Marel all sped by in the academic passing lane. 
I exercised my speed to much better effect running and skating. I am sure I am one of the very few, if not the only one, to experience Cliff in the Greek classroom and Buck on the ice. The ice, for me, was a far less slippery milieu than the Greek classroom. On the ice I worked hard to get noticed, as opposed to slumping low at that Schoolhouse table lest I get called upon. Let me be clear. The Kent hockey franchise was not going to be built around me. That was left to the likes of Clai Carr. I depended on speed, hustle, and scrappiness – learned in part by observing my friend, and soccer captain, the aptly named Puck Purnell.
Buck appreciated that scrappiness, grit if you will, and ultimately I got to play on the team he coached. Upon reflection, as I look back on my classroom experience, I think he may have appreciated me as a storyteller. Given passages to translate on quizzes, tests and exams I’d look for recognizable words. Or near recognizable words, since those nasty declensions and conjugations can throw one off. I’d take what I recognized (I had at least studied for vocabulary tests over the years.) and cobble together a “translation”, which in all truth was just a story. I could give each of you words like Xerxes, ships, victory, arrows and arrogance and I’m sure you too could come up some version of how a cocky Xerxes sailed his navy to victory through the pass at Thermopylae despite a hail of Greek arrows.
I did get better over time, if not at Greek, at storytelling. I know not how, but I stumbled upon an entire section in the Kent School library that had translations of most of what we read in class. I could actually compare notes, Cliff notes if you will, of English translations on the one hand and the largely incomprehensible Greek held in the other hand. Along with my battered Greek lexicon, its spine rebound in red tape, I still have a number of Greek texts with translations of some sort scribbled above the Greek. Today I can decipher neither those scrawls nor the Greek below.
Now a longtime teacher myself, I’ve learned well that the important lessons we take out of a classroom go well beyond the details being parsed at any given moment. Because I had a wise, patient teacher I may never have comprehended Greek grammar, but I did absorb something of Greek literature.
The storyteller in me became a theater teacher and director. My students and I have worked on productions of works by Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides, a particular hero of mine. There is no way anyone could have known in the early 60’s that a faltering scholar would someday lead students to explorations of Antigone, The Birds, or The Bacchae. Was my teacher then aware that he was even planting a seed that would come to fruition decades later? I’d like to think that at least some of what I learned then – not about Greek, but about good teaching, manifested itself in my own work.
I still play ice hockey. Still dependent on a hustling, scrappy style – while watching far younger players speed by in the passing lane. One lesson from the ice remains clearly etched by in my mind and in muscle memory. Buck taught a way of stopping and crossing one foot over the other so that one could quickly shift direction and gain momentum going the opposite way. I still do that. Though reminded of him and grateful when I’ve worked on Greek plays, it’s that simple stop and shift that brings him to mind often when I’m on the ice. Maybe because a stop and a shift in direction is also part of growing up. Something he helped me with.
Bill Williams
P.S. XAIRE is one bit of Greek I do remember. It is simply "Hail" or "Farewell".

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