Remembering a father who reached for the stars

June 21, 1998|By Phil Greenfield

As much as my father adored baseball, his ego wasn't shattered when I struck out or when a ground ball went through my legs.

But when I came within an eyelash of getting a "C" in ninth-grade English, seismologists the world over were on alert until, thank God, a last minute burst of expertise in Greek mythology convinced my teacher that I was worthy of receiving a "B."

When report cards came out that term, I emitted a sigh of relief that could have been heard from low-flying aircraft.

Dad's priorities were predictable enough, I guess, for Sumner Greenfield was a scholarly man who never stopped encouraging his children to develop and treasure a life of the mind as he had.

A Harvard Ph.D., he taught Spanish language and literature for 35 years at the University of Massachusetts, the institution to which he devoted his entire professional life.

He was, by all accounts, one hell of a professor; brilliant, opinionated, earthy, funny and fiercely loyal to the young scholars he mentored.

He was a respected, productive scholar whose writings enticed graduate students from all over (even from Spain) to come to Amherst to study with him.

His last book, an anthology of his best articles on the Spanish theater, arrived from his publisher at his Cape Cod home in February 1996, the very day he died of leukemia at age 74.

Art and the Red Sox

The study of ideas as manifested in stagecraft, literature, philosophy, art and music was the driving passion of my dad's life, though "whodunits," the Boston Red Sox and "Hawaii Five-O" were also well up there on his list.

His bookcases bulged with volumes on every conceivable topic and a robust collection of classical LPs (remember those?) that quickly became the focal point of my young life.

He never once turned me away when I came to listen and browse.

He was a world traveler who took his family to Europe for two lengthy sabbaticals that still sit in the "total recall" section of my brain.

Every father wants to give his children the world. My old man went out and did it.

When I take a look at American society today, my respect for what my dad tried to instill in me grows exponentially.

For these days, a sustained life of the mind is threatened, if not killed outright, by the insidious culture that surrounds us.

Intellectualism is demeaned on all sides, from all quarters.

'Awfully geeky'?

When my sister decided to place my niece in a Massachusetts charter school that wasn't the least bit apologetic about its high standards and staunch emphasis on character building, one of her friends was scandalized. All this affluent, college-educated wife of a medical professional could say was, "But aren't all the kids there going to be awfully geeky?"

Geeky? Smart is bad. The intellect is the enemy. No wonder our priorities are so screwed up.

We've created an escapist society and will spare no expense to perpetuate it.

Stadiums, not schools. Hollywood, not Harvard. Computer games over conversation. Titillation over engagement.

A "well-rounded" kid today does soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and swim team in the summer.

Read a novel? Take in a play? Go to the symphony? You've got to be kidding. (Even if they wanted to go, they couldn't get off work.)

Teachers extolling the glories of Western culture, good grammar or the disciplined mastery of a foreign language are pariahs today, discredited by the manic egalitarianism of the modern schoolhouse, which sacrifices legitimate expectations of academic erudition on the politically correct high altar of social leveling.

No wonder sex and violence rule the roost in our Springerized population. If the energy isn't going to the mind and soul, it has to go somewhere.

So I'm very thankful for having had a father who would have none of it; a dad who went out of his way to show his kids that life had tremendous meaning and that Beethoven, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart, El Greco, Federico Garcia Lorca and, yes, Ted Williams were all integral parts of what it had to offer.

Dads who unplug

This Father's Day, I doff my cap to dads who do their best to develop a life of the mind in their children.

Congratulations for having unplugged their TVs and computer games long enough to have read with them, taken them out to buy books and accompanied them to the library.

May you continue to escort them to concerts, plays and museums even as you encourage them to study dance, music, art and the theater. Thanks for springing for the lessons. I know they ain't cheap.

Continue to insist on good grammar and tip-top writing even if their teachers don't. Remember, the teacher's hands are tied. Yours aren't.

Have a ball when you travel. Here's hoping you can take the kids to places where the cultural amenities aren't limited to human-sized rodents. They'll never forget it. Or you.

A mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste, especially when it belongs to your own child.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

And thanks.

Phil Greenfield has taught at Annapolis High School since 1979 and is an arts reviewer for The Sun. In 1996-1997, he was a Fulbright exchange teacher in Cambridgeshire, England.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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