Friday, February 22, 2013

The Teacher Who Inspired a City

 In yesterday's post I described Edmund Schofield, a kind of renaissance man from Worcester, MA who devoted his life to studying the history of his native city.  His last days were devoted to researching a high school teacher who, he discovered,  taught and mentored some of the finest authors and poets to come out of Worcester.  Ed sent me this article about Miss Shaughnessy but he died unexpectedly a few days later,  on April 17, 2010, before he had time to add one more name to the list of writers she inspired:  my husband Nicholas Gage.  Nick came  to Worcester at age nine after his mother was executed by Communist guerrillas during the Greek Civil War and grew up to write his mother's story in the book "Eleni" and "A Place for Us"-- about  his and his sisters' adjustment to Worcester and the father he'd never met. Miss Shaughnessy taught him in 10th grade and appointed him editor of the school paper.   She took him under her wing as she had done with so many before him. Learning that Nick was another of her students thrilled Ed in the last week of his life.  I know Ed Schofield would want this article published, and I believe that Miss Shaughnessy deserves this recognition of  what she gave to her students and to Worcester.
(Below is the dedication to her from the Classical High School yearbook of 1966)
Anna Camilla Shaughnessy, Poets’ Muse
Edmund A. Schofield

Edward Tyrrel Channing taught writing at Harvard for thirty-one years during the early nineteenth century. Among his students were such renowned authors-to-be as Emerson, Thoreau, Richard Henry Dana, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who lived in Worcester for a decade before the Civil War), Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell. Quite a haul for one professor!

Yet if Harvard had its Edward Channing, Worcester’s Classical High School had its Anna C. Shaughnessy. And if Channing had his Emerson, Thoreau, Dana, Higginson, Holmes, and Lowell to brag about, Anna Shaughnessy could boast that she had fledged her very own brood of aspiring writers.

She was born in Cherry Valley in 1896 and died in 1985 at Clark Manor Nursing Home in Worcester—scarcely two and a half miles from where she was born. A devout Catholic all of her life, she received many honors from her Church, including the Pro Deo et Juventute Award from the Diocese of Worcester. She is buried in Saint John’s Cemetery.

Her father, Michael, was born in Ireland and worked as superintendent of a woolen mill in Cherry Valley. Her mother, Anne (Daly), was born in Pittsfield. The family of twelve moved into Worcester early in the twentieth century.

Anna graduated from South High School in 1913 and from Radcliffe College, Class of 1917, magna cum laude. In 1955 she received a Master’s degree in Education from Clark University. During her second year at Radcliffe she was one of only fourteen sophomores in the top tier of honor students. According to the Boston Globe, a Radcliffe honors student had to have “Very high academic distinction and concurrent testimony in her favor from a sufficient number of instructors.” In 1916, while at Radcliffe, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

After Radcliffe, she taught for a year in Newton and then, for two years, in Millbury. In January 1921 she came to Classical, where she taught English until her retirement in 1966, the year in which Classical High School was shut down. For several years she also was head of the English Department of the City’s schools.

In the words of one Classical graduate, she “was an inspirational teacher.” Indeed, less than five years after her arrival, the Class of 1925 would dedicate its yearbook to “Anna C. Shaughnessy, a brilliant scholar, a thorough teacher, and a true and sympathetic friend.” The accompanying photograph shows a beautiful young woman of serious mien with haunting, brooding, almost sad eyes.

Anna Shaughnessy labored for the City of Worcester for decades. And yet who (beyond co-workers, close friends, and family—and the many young people whose lives she must have touched) has ever heard of her? Granted, she once did receive a key to the City for her work with young people, but that is all. She has been swallowed up in undeserved oblivion.

It is high time Worcester further recognized this dedicated, “inspiring” teacher, perhaps through a scholarship or prize for aspiring writers. (Worcester County Poetry Association, please take note.) For through her long teaching career she would bring honor and credit to our City. Not just directly, through her labors with young people, but indirectly, through the later high triumphs of certain of her students—at least three of whom rose to become very well known writers. And who could possibly calculate her citywide influence during her years as head of the City schools’ English Department?

Three renowned writers that we know about were Stanley J. Kunitz (1905–2006, Classical 1922), Charles J. Olson (1910–1969, Classical 1928), and Milton Meltzer (1915–2009, Classical 1932). Do these names ring any bells for you? They should!

Stanley Kunitz was a self-starter at Classical if ever there was one. He seems to have chosen the vocation of poet from the start, which does not seem to have been the case with Charles Olson. In his Junior year at Classical Kunitz was assistant editor of the new student literary magazine, The Argus, and held that post until his Senior year, when he rose to become “Editor-in-Chief.” He was a prolific writer for The Argus and a top scholar.

According to a reliable source who knew her well, Stanley Kunitz studied with Anna Shaughnessy.

In recognition of his stature as a poet, Kunitz would serve two terms as Consultant on Poetry to the Library of Congress—in effect, as Poet Laureate—and one term as actual Poet Laureate of the United States, after that post had been created. According to Wikipedia, “He was considered by many observers to be the most distinguished and accomplished poet in the United States at the time of his death in 2006.” Professor Michael D. True of Worcester believes that Kunitz’s high reputation will continue to grow over the years. I agree.

The documented evidence for Anna Shaughnessy’s influence on Charles Olson is much stronger than that for Kunitz, and the influence was profound. “She was the teacher of Stanley Kunitz,” says my source, who knew Olson very well and is sure that Miss Shaughnessy “must have mentioned him and talked about him to Charles, because it was not too long before that that [Kunitz] had graduated, and, of course, came quite early into the poetical scene.” Indeed, Kunitz’s first book of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930, only two years after Olson graduated.

Olson was an outstanding student in all subjects, but (my source says), his principal interest probably “would have been in English literature because there was a teacher whom I considered an inspirational teacher, and I know has had a great deal of influence on a good many people.” That teacher was Anna Shaughnessy.

In his senior year Olson placed third in a national oratorical contest, winning a thrilling ten-week tour of Europe along with the other top winners. From Classical he went first to Wesleyan University and then, after receiving a Master’s degree there, to Harvard, though he did not finish. For his part, Kunitz had graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1926 and went on to earn a Master’s there.

Unlike Kunitz, it took Olson some time to settle on his métier. Not especially interested in poetry during his high school years, once he did settle on it he excelled and is today considered one of the twentieth century’s most important American poets. His influence has even spanned the Atlantic, reaching to important poets in Britain.

In 1969 Olson wrote to Anna Shaughnessy, by then retired from teaching. “My dear Anna S,” he began, continuing somewhat incoherently, “You shldn't at all be surprised I've carried you as close to my heart as the first days I ever sat in your class.” (Chalk up the quirky spelling and syntax to poet’s license.)

Milton Meltzer, the third writer influenced by Anna Shaughnessy, though not a poet, entered Classical in 1928, graduating in 1932. He died in New York City on September 19th of last year. A prolific writer, he would write more than one hundred books on such subjects as Jewish, African–American, and American history, primarily for young people.

Few of the teachers at Classical were interested in ideas, he felt, but simply wanted students to memorize facts, dates, and names. One notable exception was Anna C. Shaughnessy. My source tells me the same.

In his charming little reminiscence of Worcester, Starting from Home, Meltzer notes that it was she who introduced him to Thoreau, one of his favorite authors: he would later write a biography of Thoreau, edit a collection of Thoreau’s political essays, and collaborate on another book about Thoreau.

Years later, his life, gone awry, was redeemed when he reread a climactic passage from Thoreau’s book Walden.

But let him tell the story.

Miss Shaughnessy “asked whether I knew of this Massachusetts writer who’d lived only some 40 miles away, in Concord,” he writes. “I didn’t.”

“‘Thoreau was born in 1817, about a hundred years before you,’ Miss Shaughnessey said. ‘But I think, when you read him, you’ll find his ideas, his way of looking at life, will mean as much to you as if he were born yesterday.’”

“So I started on a copy of Walden that I borrowed from her,” Meltzer writes.

His book has the rhythm and flow of the changing seasons. And out of that pattern came his central symbol—rebirth and renewal, not only of the world around us, but of our own inner development.

Many years after my first encounter with Thoreau, when I was deeply troubled by the course my life was taking, I went back to Walden once more. On the last page I read this passage:
”Every one has heard the story . . . of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table . . , hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, . . . may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society’s most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its summer life at last!”

As I finished reading those lines, I began to sob. The image of a bug emerging into life after all those years in its wooden tomb, touched something deep in me. The tears poured out in relief. Feelings that had been frozen so long, melted in a rush. My wife, who had come running at the sound of crying, looked at me in amazement, then put her arms around me. I felt like one reborn. . . .

And so it was that Anna Camilla Shaughnessy, a brilliant Irish–Catholic girl from little Cherry Valley, Mass., would help three fledgling writers (and more) rise to the beautiful, winged, “summer life” of poetry and literary prose. I doubt that Worcester high school students have ever seen, before or since, the likes of her. As a high school teacher, she can have had no peers.


Unknown said...

This is a wonderful article about my great aunt Anna. Thank you for writing this story. Cathryn Jerome Mezynski

Unknown said...

This is a wonderful article about my great aunt Anna. Thank you for writing this story. Cathryn Jerome Mezynski

by Joan Gage said...

Cathryn, thanks so much for your comment! Your great aunt was a very important person in Worcester's history and many of her students--writers and non-writers-- owe her a great debt.