Hearing the snippets of Kipling's words, written as fatherly advice to a son, I was no longer standing in my kitchen. Instead, I was transported back to New York, up the small hill to P.S. 30, into Mr. Brown's fifth-grade classroom. There I stood facing my friends, my back to the wall-size, black chalkboard. I don't remember exactly which part of "If" was mine, though for some reason the first set of lines are there, in my head, more so than the rest.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
As I clunkily recited the words, memorized in a last-minute haste the night before, the paternal heeding was lost on my 10-year-old self. It didn't matter. This poem's message wove its way silently into my psyche, joining many others that Mr. Brown himself imparted.
At least once a month, our chestnut-haired teacher would tell the tale, tall as it may have been, of a boy who took drugs and stared at the sun, never to see again.
He would recall a class trip, on a boat, where a student's note-filled binder went overboard into the Hudson River, the New York skyline watching mockingly in the distance. While the anguished boy lamented, Mr. Brown chastised him for not having the knowledge "up here", tapping his finger to his temple.
Another time, he refused to accept a "my invention" project from my best friend because she "invented" a pill to cure all problems.
"That's a very, very dangerous path, young lady!" he sternly admonished her, his anger palpable.
Finally, when one boy was left out of the voluntary sleeping arrangements for an overnight field trip, Mr. Brown locked us in the classroom until we worked it out, mutely monitoring us on the two-way intercom.
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
At this public school, up a small hill, there wasn't just Mr. Brown who provided an academic and, more importantly, emotional compass to the woman I would become.
There was Mrs. Powers, who in second grade silently passed me an extra tile for our Mother's Day project of sponge-painted apple trees. Wordlessly, she let me know that she knew about my imperfect situation at home. For many summers after, this beautiful woman -- for that's how I remember her coal hair and soft face -- would send me encouraging postcards. The words are forever lost, but their sweet essence floats past like iridescent bubbles from a plastic wand.
Then there was our principal, Mr. Martin, whose bear-like physique made everyone feel safe. It was Mr. Martin who found my missing mother, head shaved rocking back and forth in a dirty blanket, on the side of the highway one night while driving home. The next day, as we passed each other in the linoleum-lined halls, his knowing nod was all that was needed to help me soldier on.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
Back in my kitchen, with the aromatic aroma of spaghetti sauce filling the air, I wondered what happened to Mr. Brown and Ms. Powers and Mr. Martin. Given how many decades had passed I realized that they, like my favorite high-school English teacher, Mr. Briley, had most likely left this earth. With Kipling's words still rising and falling from the dining room, I longed to interrupt and tell the story of how these teachers, with a little help from an English poet, made me realize that the Earth and everything that's in it is mine, my son.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Source: A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1943)