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Panther Paths

Ask Mr. Vaile: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken is one of the more renowned if not misinterpreted American poems. Frost has plenty to offer, for sure, but it is perhaps from a misunderstanding of Frost’s most famous poem that he has become so celebrated in popular culture.

When it comes to Frost, I admit that my taste is tinged with some bitterness. Because if you ask me, Carl Sandburg was robbed. It is Sandburg, the far stronger and more authentically American voice, who should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature that Robert Frost won in 1963. When you have a chance, read some of what Sandburg writes about “building, breaking, and rebuilding.” It is beautiful stuff. But I digress.

You probably know some of Frost’s lines from advertisements for Mentos, Nicorette Gum, and Ford trucks even if you haven’t yet taken Mr. Vaile’s English Classes. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both,” Frost begins in The Road not Taken. He concludes three stanzas later: “I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”

A few of Frost’s lines from the poem end up in advertisements because of a triumphalism and certainty that his full poem does not in fact possess. Frost introduces the pride he will take in choosing a certain road with the conceit that he “shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence.” Frost is acknowledging that it is only in his gilded, gauzy reflections that he will claim to know for sure. The truth about which path was superior is in fact difficult, if not impossible to know.

So it is with this cautionary word that I introduce a short reflection here about my path to St. Anselm’s and back home again. I should take heed not to look back with rose-tinted glasses, “telling this with a sigh,” as Frost writes.

Of this though I am sure: it was in coming to St. Anselm’s that I realized how many different paths there could be. And it was in riding the E2 Bus across town from Upper Northwest to campus that I realized how privileged my path was when compared to so many others in my city.

Twenty-five years ago Washington, D.C. was far more of a segregated city. Traveling across it each day was a tutorial all its own. From the trip itself I quickly realized how little I knew about my own hometown, or about the day-to-day struggles and experience of the majority of its residents.

For the next five years my teachers at St. Anselm’s opened up a new world that my daily commute to St. Anselm’s began to pry open. Each day they awakened me to a sense of possibility and perhaps, responsibility.

No, I didn’t get straight A’s. I even got a few C’s. Ask Dr. Wood. But gradually and then all of the sudden: poetry, politics, history- what for me were just sterile subjects to be endured a few short years before- became pathways to understand the dead, the living, and the world I would share with them.

The rhetoric of Pericles, the writings of Emerson, the pathos of Lincoln- the logic of the Greeks and the faith of the desert fathers: attending St. Anselm’s laid all these before me, each part of a human tapestry. Whichever the class and whomever the instructor, Mr. Vaile, Mr. Morse, Ms. Cholis, Mr. Achilles or Father Peter, I begin to imagine how one day I could weave my own stitch into this story.

The classes I took at St. Anselm’s prepared me for more difficult journeys to come. Yes, they prepared me for four years at Dartmouth, but also to return myself to St. Anselm’s as a history teacher. They prepared me for four years in the Middle East where I would help launch a newspaper, and several years after that working for the Mayor of Chicago, the Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense.

From all those experiences, I have to say there’s nothing like walking up the stairs to a plane with “The United States of America” written in blue letters across it, arriving several hours later in some foreign capital helping to explain America’s interest and values to the world. But there is also nothing like walking under the words, “Rursus Incipiemus Nunc et Semper” as I enter St. Anselm’s each day, having an opportunity to help strengthen the school and the experience that made my path possible.

Because I’m also quite sure of this: the education you are privileged to receive here at St. Anselm’s will open many paths from which you can choose.

It will do little good to hem and haw now or later about which path could have created for you more prestige, or more learning, or more wealth. What is most important is that you pursue your own path with vigor and make sure it is truly your own. That is what a St. Anselm’s education will enable you to do.

Several times, as Robert Frost writes, I have encountered two roads diverging in the wood. I cannot say with certainty if I have always decided best. What I do know is that each of these roads was paved with a pursuit of Pax in Sapientia instilled in me within this special community.

I hope that you, as students, experience the same richness of St. Anselm’s that I did and that it opens up the world for you, as it did for me. I hope too that our paths cross more often over the course of this coming year.

The story of heroic men is not engraved in stone, but abides everywhere without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other mens’ lives.