The Cemetery as an Open-Air Classroom

This year marks my 46th year since I started my first job in educational publishing.  In that time, I have met and worked with thousands of talented and gifted educators.  One of those teachers is MaryKim, a creative force, who used the cemetery as an open-air classroom as part of a Death: Fact and Fiction course in her St. Charles, Missouri, classroom.  In that course she used Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology as course material for the class.  Her school was 150 miles away from where the characters from the anthology are buried, so she would load her students up and make the trek to Lewistown and Petersburg so they could see the communities and cemeteries for themselves that had inspired Masters.

The anthology reads like a soap opera because characters come in and out of each other people’s poems and more and more connections are made among the people in the monologues. One of the main reasons MaryKim selected Spoon River Anthology as a text for the class was because it taught students how to pick out subtleties and build a sensitivity to language.  After constant practice that came with such a volume of poems, 244 in all, students would get the hang of the style, rhythm, and structure. As part of the course MaryKim would have the students mimick Masters’s style in poems of their own.    

The students especially found the sets of poems that told two or more sides to someone’s life. Two of their favorites were the poems about Elsa Wertman and Hamilton Greene:

Elsa Wertman

I was a peasant girl from Germany,

Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.

And the first place I worked was at Thomas Green’s.

On a summer’s day when she was away

He stole into the kitchen and took me

Right in his arms and kissed me on the throat,

I turning my head.  Then neither of us

Seemed to know what happened.

And I cried for what would become of me.

And I cried as my secret began to show.

One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,

And would make no trouble for me,

And, being childless, would adopt it.

(He had given her a farm to be still.)

So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,

As if it were going to happen to her.

And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.

Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.

But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying

At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene—

That was not it.

No! I wanted to say:

That’s my son! That’s my son!

Hamilton Greene

I was the only child of Frances Harris of Virginia

And Thomas Greene of Kentucky,

Of valiant and honorable blood both.

To them I owe all that I became,

Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State.

From my mother I inherited

Vivacity, fancy, language:

From my father will, judgment, logic.

All honor to them

For what service I was to the people!

According to the map and key that is available at the entrance to the Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown, the fictional person, Hamilton Greene, depicted in the poem was Thomas A. Boyd.  It is clear that Masters fictionalized the account.  For one, the real-life Boyd, although, he was an attorney and did serve in state government and in Congress in the House of Representatives, he was born in Pennsylvania, not Kentucky.  It is unclear how much of the rest of the account after that was fictional. Unfortunately, there is no indication of who Elsa Wertman might have been or even if she had been based on a real person who lived in the area. Her secret has been kept.

At the end of the unit, the class would have a great celebration to share the projects they created—cakes in the form of tombstones, poetic monologues in Spoon River fashion about students’ ancestors, parades of characters with props speaking to us from their graves, and once even a movie from a group of boys who visited the cemeteries and shot the film.  For many students it was a “family affair” day since so many students wrote poems about their own dead relatives.

To get the students in her classroom started on their creative journeys, MaryKim would share poems she wrote about her own parents: her mother who died from cancer she got because of a wrong prescription and one about her dad who died a few days after having gone fishing and written, of course, in Edgar Lee Masters’s style:

Vera Nylon Dotzler 

The doctors said “it was all in my head…” 

(it was my 43rd birthday) 

but I knew something was growing inside 

eating me up little by little. 

Finally the cancer showed up on an x-ray 

and I was sadly vindicated. 

Yet, how was I to give my four children 

the lifetime’s worth of mothering they would need 

with only six months left ? 

What happened to them? 

Are they happy? 

Did they marry and have children? 

So much unanswered. 

Better a long life of pain and disappointment 

than a life cut short and left unfinished 

leaving only questions. 

Mark Dotzler 

1906-1987 

I died on a Monday 

the weekend before I spent fishing 

How I loved the sight of the sun coming over the trees 

splashing down into the water. 

How I loved the dancing ripples around the line, taut with a 

nibble… 

Life was a lake to me 

with shallows and deeps, beauty and dangers, 

and always mysteries hovering just below the surface. 

Over the years 

the Fisher of Men – Death – 

had done a lot of catch and release with me. 

At the age of 81 

he decided I was a keeper… 

I was perhaps, even – 

the Catch of the Day!

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2 Responses to The Cemetery as an Open-Air Classroom

  1. MARY KIM SCHRECK says:

    Thank you Douglas!

  2. MARY KIM SCHRECK says:

    Thank you Douglas! Those were good days!

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