Ties that bind

Michael S. Weaver

December 04, 1992|By Michael S. Weaver

IN 1965, when I was 13, I started high school at Poly. That was when it was in the old building on North Avenue. That building is now the school system's headquarters, a gleaming edifice. Whenever I pass it on one of my trips home to Baltimore, I look for some of the ghosts. But they're gone. Gone, too, is Poly's requirement that each young man wear a necktie fastened neatly at the neck.

At 13, I was ready for a lot of things -- a bar mitzvah, baptism, Taoist readings -- any number of approaches inward toward the universe. What I was not ready for was the tying of my own knot. The adolescent rituals of seeking approval from my peers would not let me go to school with a clip-on. So I went to seek the knowledge of hands that knew how to tie a tie. And I went in search of the tie that is tied by human hands and not some phantasm of a machine.

I asked my father to show me.

"Ain't nothing to it," he said. "Just watch this." And he showed me.

Poly teachers loved to point out those without a necktie. "So you don't have a tie today, so and so," a teacher would say. Then he would call the culprit to the front of the room and make him stand there while he rummaged in his deck for a suitable mark of shame -- the most horrendous and ancient tie anyone ever saw. These ties looked like something Lucky Luciano might have worn, complete with what seemed a lifetime of a gourmand's excesses: gravy, grease and grime.

"Here, put this one, and wear it in tomorrow morning. Forget it, and you've bought yourself a tie."

Poly seemed like another planet we entered every day. Now that I am older and have talked with people who have been to private schools and in the military, I understand what the teachers and administrators were trying to do. They were trying to channel our hormones so that we would reach positions of import and power in a world they might not live to see.

For much of what Poly hoped to do for us, it employed the necktie. Neckties choke you, especially if your shirt collar is already a little small. They also spell formality and decorum and propriety. These are aspects of professionalism.

Baltimore Polytechnic prepared us for respectable careers. We were studying to enter college in engineering and science tracks. It didn't matter that we didn't understand at the time how very often a career is a series of changes and retooling.

What mattered was that Poly was preparing us to conduct ourselves in a certain manner in the world, no matter what we chose to do later. Poly was giving us a way to view the world. It may be argued that this vision had its faults, but it was a vision.

I tied the single knot for many years. The double knot, or "winston," was beyond my calculus. My Uncle Frank tried to show it to me a few times, but it just made my stomach hurt to watch him do that intricate weave. I didn't know the psychological terror of mirrors, so at first I tried to tie the winston knot in the mirror. You cannot watch yourself do something backwards.

I can do the winston now, but it looks chunky. The slightly sloppy single tie is good for a poet.

I wear a tie to class every day now, though I went without ties through my 20s, when I worked in a factory. When I returned to academia, I found that everyone had his or her own style. Then I met Michael S. Harper, my poetry teacher. He wore a tie every day. I recognized some old self-perception. So I wear my ties now, and I will probably always wear a tie.

When I looked at Professor Harper, I thought, "That's the kind of poet I want to be."

And so I am, from Poly.

The University of Pittsburgh Press has just published "My Father's Geography," Michael S. Weaver's second book of poems. He teaches at Rutgers and lives in Philadelphia.

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