December 3, 2016 | 1 Comment | Betsy Woodman
I was saddened to hear this week of the death of my friend and tenth-grade English teacher, Jim Swain.
Jim’s roots were in Connecticut, but he was a world citizen; his work as a Methodist minister and literature teacher took him across the globe. When I was at Woodstock School, in northern India, Jim and his wife, Doris (his high school sweetheart), were the dorm supervisors for the high school boys. They were still in their twenties. Woodstock boys were famous for high jinks (according to legend, they once led a cow into the dorm), but apparently Jim and Doris coped, with the right mixture of charm and authority.
Doris taught math. Calm, rational, she conveyed the idea that equations (and, by implication, everything else) could be approached without hysteria. She made me love algebra. Jim taught English and drama, and swept us up in his enthusiasm for poetry. He emphasized careful observation. One of our assignments was to examine the same item (say a tree, a building, a piano) every day for a month, under different circumstances, and then write it up. He demanded a lot of his students (I flunked the first quiz in his class), but kept us excited about learning and eager to give it our best effort. Here he is, on the left, beaming at his students after a Shakespeare evening.
I reconnected with the Swains just last year. At a Woodstock alumni luncheon, I was seated next to a man who was expressing a passionate opposition to the death penalty. Oh my goodness, I realized, it’s Mr. Swain–the Mr. Swain! Mrs. Swain–the Mrs. Swain–was at another table. It turned out that they spent summers in New Hampshire, in Littleton, an easy drive from where I live.
Later that summer, my significant other, Will, and I spent a great day with Jim and Doris. It was easy to see why they loved their log cabin with the panoramic view of the Presidential range. We left having planted the idea that Jim might do a poetry reading sometime in our neck of the woods.
The idea grew into a poetry party. Woodstock School pal John Copley Alter, poet and former teaching colleague of Jim’s, said he’d participate (and drove all the way from Maryland to do so.) My sister Lee Woodman also agreed to read. We added a potluck dinner to the plan–oh, and wine before hand.
At the event, we rotated through the three poets a couple of times. The first several poems from each were inspired by their experiences in India. Here’s Jim:
And Lee…and John.
Other themes followed–family, weather, houses. Poets and audience alike listened intently. (No, they didn’t fall asleep! Poetry is best heard with one’s eyes closed.)
Jim later sent me some more poems. Those with New Hampshire settings and family themes struck an especially resonant note. In his memory, he saw his mother: “Scraping cane-bottomed chairs/With shards of broken lamp chimney…” After a visit to the Yerkes Observatory, where Doris’s forefather astronomer Carl Stearns had worked, he wrote: “Great-grandfather is disappearing from view. Like the comet he discovered, he/quickly becomes a very faint object.”
Jim revised his work constantly, worked hard to put the pieces together. The process made its way into the poems. In “A Time with Shiva,” he speaks of the ambiguity behind the phrase “I really couldn’t say.” Does that mean can’t say, or won’t say? “These words discourage/me…” The poem continued:
Now that Jim is gone, those lines seem particularly poignant. Oh, the never-ending struggle of writers to get it down and get it right! And oh, the too-short time we’re given to do the job.