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The Pilgrim Age

Posted By Blake Glidden '87, Monday, November 21, 2016

When the leaves start to crunch on the ground and Christmas lights rise in the streets, then it must be late August and time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. It’s a time to get ready for the greatest Avery Coonley tradition of them all: the annual Flubbed Attempt to Describe the Super Weird Thanksgiving Program. As a student I walked in eight processionals but my memories feel unreliable, almost bewitched, like that storybook kid who falls asleep in the woods and dreams of being whisked to a banquet of elves but then wakes up alone, in a breeze that sounds faintly like music, half-wondering if it had just been a dream. The Thanksgiving Program is a group dream shared by everyone in the auditorium. I’m not a cultural anthropologist and I don’t know why some rituals have such oomph—solemnity and symbolism can push buttons, but those words feel so clinical and adult, while the Thanksgiving Program is a mirage that belongs to kids.

For us students, the processional had a beginning, middle, and end that were held in three separate ecosystems. The first was a sideroom that the parents never saw. I don’t want to give away any ancient seahorse secrets but the brains of the program were the adult staff in charge of this room. Nowadays we would call it a staging area, but really it was more of a livestock holding pen where students were tagged and stacked before entering the auditorium. Imagine two hundred anklebiters, lined up from youngest to moodiest, all whispering and giggling and shushing and caping each other. Not capping—caping; this was the only place post-Zorro where a cape was a verb. They swirled from our backs like gusts of leaves as we galloped through a maze of tables piled with food: red ripples of apples toppling from baskets, sleek eggplants, oranges, berries, greens, bundles of pale wheat leaning like brooms, a bonanza of squash, pumpkins, and gourds as if those are really three different foods, and next to each item, a notecard with the name of the student assigned to carry it. The card was a potential bummer for the younger classes because no one trusted their stumpy doll hands to carry anything; for two straight years they gave me a potato.

There was only one door separating this mess from the second ecosystem—the dark yonder where all the parents and adults were waiting. An eighth grader might have forty minutes to kill in the first room before it was his or her turn to join the ceremony, which sounds like a long time but you could never really relax, because you belonged to a hobbit chain gang whose youngest end was getting gulped down the esophagus of the door. Then it was your turn—year after year, always suddenly your turn—your instant to shuffle to the threshold, where the weather seemed to gather and a teacher goosed you through.

We walked in our socks. For a week we had practiced leading with our left, but many young geniuses would disgrace Jamestown by choking and leading with their other left. No one really cared because it was way too dark to see feet. Leaving behind the jumbled first room was like opening a capsule hatch and floating into the ink of galactic space—in my memory we were being absorbed by oblivion. Which I think raises some legit questions about my memory, because really, oblivion? It was the gym. And not a big gym—big for a badminton court, indulgent for a garage, but a dark yonder? Sounds fishy, but such is the power of Thanksgiving.

And such is the weakness of eyewitness testimony. Over the years, I’ve accepted that the Rock Pond was never actually the sixth Great Lake, but I still believe our Thanksgiving Program was held in a proud and brave gymnasium that rose to the occasion every time. Each student walked deliberately down the aisle—we ferried that food like a kingdom of ants who had finally hit the jackpot. We walked past all the adults, who sat serenely in the dark because they loved us, and because they hadn’t brought their cellphones, since walking around with a vintage cellphone was like carrying a futon. The darkness consumed us. A hush rippled down like glitter in a snow globe. I don’t know if you could have heard a pin drop but I was gripping my potato tighter than a holy yam. It wouldn’t have mattered, there was only one sound in the room that anyone remembers: a curve of music that was unspooling itself from the farther corner of the gym. Pachelbel’s Canon, performed live by the music department. A perfect fit that always sounded fresh, because these were the days before the wedding industry had rebranded Pachelbel’s Canon into the chicken dance of classical music, back when every kid only knew the title and never questioned the odd image it evoked of Pachelbel, on a hill, raining thunder and doom from his world famous death cannon.

Halfway down the aisle we started to feel tractor-beamed towards our destination, a glowing shape at the front of the room. This was the Thanksgiving Display. And I realize that display is a pretty flimsy word, but good luck finding a better one because whatever that thing was, it glides through language like a ghost through a net. In my eyes it was more lovely than strange, but when you look at pictures, strange makes a strong comeback. We decorated the display during the processional itself: Each student walked the length of the gym and then up a few stairs to the stage, where for a few charmed seconds we stepped into the swaddled world of a Cezanne still life, before placing our food on a prearranged ledge and scramming stage left for the next student. This went on for an hour. It sounds simple but the result was not from our planet—it was from a groovier planet, a planet that cared deeply about drapery and wicker. Each year the adults watched in amazement as their children built a nine-dimensional salad bar out of mood lighting and the fall collection from Fruit of the Loom. It was weird but it worked: Yeats once wrote a poem about the Cloths of Heaven, but here were the cloths of earth, furled in the colors of harvest, a crescendo of fabric and food that crumpled and hived into a neo-Plymouth Rock. It was Picasso’s Farmers’ Market and Liberace’s Yard Sale. It was half elegant, half figment, and all ours: the Annual Incommunicable Seahorse Thanksgiving Noun.

And that was that. We left our food as an offering to the vegetable ziggurat. We nodded silently at each other in our brown capes, a secret society of pilgrim superheroes. The oldest girls hung the enchanted citrus frisbee somewhere near the cranberry harpoon, and we all sang to the adults. The music changed year to year but always included For the Beauty of the Earth, which had become kind of a theme song and swelled through the room like a hymn should. Each year the music teacher Ms. Martin tried to get us to sing the words flower and hour using only one syllable, so each year we sang our heads off praising flarr and arr like thankful pirates. When the ceremony ended, adults and kids together spilled out the front doors, squinting in the white sun.

Or at least I hope we did, I really hope that’s what happened. And I hope Mrs. Lenhardt isn’t reading this right now, glancing around a room and saying to no one in particular, “Well, I see a lot of words here, but not too many that describe any Thanksgiving Program can remember. But what do I know? I’ve only been running the thing thirty years. Now what’s this about a tiny room where we crammed all the students and food? For an imaginary room, that sounds like quite a fire hazard!”

She’d be right, so I can only shrug. As kids we couldn’t process half of what happened. We couldn’t appreciate how the Thanksgiving Program wasn’t merely beautiful, but that it tied a string around our fingers that would eventually help tether our idea of beauty to specific mature virtues. Gratitude and empathy. Fellowship. Love of nature. The food was donated to the needy. The capes were ejected from society—one day perhaps we will burn them for fuel. The Golden Rule will be our guide. 

But as kids, what we lacked in nuance we might have gained in grace. Everyone knows what it’s like to walk around a big city in the middle of the day and then to slip inside an old museum or cathedral. It’s a different realm, your footsteps clack, the world feels removed. When it’s time to leave and you step back outside, at first the sounds of the city seem muted and it takes a few minutes for your brain to catch up. You might be stuck at McDonald’s but your mind’s eye lags behind, still levitating through the cathedral like a balloon. Of course it deflates in a hurry—even for a monk it’s an impossible awareness to sustain. But for the adults and students of the Avery Coonley School, remembering the Thanksgiving Program offers a handy, permanent glimpse backwards into wonder. The details might be up for debate but the faraway feeling it revives is yours in your pocket. This morning I found some pictures of past programs, and what strikes me is how much the generations look alike. The lunatics of the 1930s are following the same recipe that the modern students used last November, same clothes and props, same body language, their faces could be my classmates or my sister. Soon it will be a hundred years. A long long line of curious great kids in that first room, peeking around their friends’ shoulders, waiting their turn.

~ Blake Glidden, ACS Class of 1987


Tags:  Thanksgiving 

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