Dad blogging: My daughter’s graduation over the weekend was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever attended. She had the very special privilege of attending an old (hers was the 209th graduating class), prestigious and tradition-honoring New England boarding school. She is one of those unique kids who was aware every moment she was on campus, what a privilege it is to live and learn and play in such a rarefied place. Her graduating class is filled with extraordinary athletes and scholars and artists from exclusive zip codes and also from inner cities, from almost every state and five continents. They are among the most intelligent and competitive — yet most loyal and caring for one-another — groups of people I’ve ever observed. Yet I can say, among those incredible kids, no one has ever loved the school — “The Academy” — more than my daughter. And (excuse the boastful dad beaming through) I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud than when it was announced that she was being honored with a very prestigious award for embodying the high ideals and character and heritage for which the school has long been noted. My daughter is one of those special people who naturally, unknowingly always give back more than they take. She inspires me with her determination to make the best of any situation. She’s had her share of not making the team, of not getting invited, of not scoring the best: but she’s never allowed herself to be defined by what she’s not accomplished, nor has she let set-backs keep her from trying the next time, the next season, the next class. I could go on, but I value her privacy. She knows I love her: I’ve told her every day of her life. But she’ll never know how much she inspires me and her mom — or maybe she will one day when she has a daughter of her own.
Liner notes: One last “daughter” note. One of the graduation weekend traditions of my daughter’s high school is an awards luncheon attended by 1,500 or so family members of the 200 graduates. Before the ceremony, the school’s headmaster, who is retiring this year, asked our daughter to play, as a form of benediction to the event and to his tenure with his last graduating class, a favorite fiddle piece of his: Ashokan Farewell (iTunes link to a version produced by the tune’s composer, Jay Ungar). Many people are familiar with the haunting melody as it served as the theme song for Ken Burn’s PBS series, “The Civil War.” While it was written in 1982 by a Jewish guy from the Bronx (his description), its style is evocative of a Scottish lament that captures a sense of melancholy and tragic loss associated with the Civil War.
Two weeks ago, my daughter played the same tune at the memorial service of a teacher who inspired her the most during her high school career: a gentle, aging English teacher who has inspired decades of the school’s students and whose life came to an end after a long struggle with cancer. He loved playing the banjo and after hearing my daughter play the fiddle at a school assembly her freshman year, he invited her to take part in the informal bluegrass and folk music jam sessions that he and some other faculty members enjoyed. Perhaps it was their shared love of a unique style of music that later in the classroom, helped ignite in her a love a literature — she’s always been a “numbers” person. Hers was one of the last courses he taught, his sickness weakening him steadily over the past year. He continued to live in a house on campus and so, along with her current English teacher, a guitarist who also had been inspired in his youth by the banjo player, my daughter was able to continue to visit and play for their beloved teacher, mentor and friend. And when he was too frail to take visitors, my daughter and her current teacher, recorded a collection of his favorite tunes for him to listen to.
He loved the tune Ashokan Farewell. And, he especially loved the simple, yet emotional way my daughter performs it.
The first time I heard the tune — 16 years ago on the PBS series — I teared up. On Saturday, as it was played by my daughter as a farewell to her retiring headmaster, to her friends and to the faculty and staff she has grown to love, and as a final farewell to the distinguished gentle man who inspired in her a love of literature that will last a lifetime, I had tears streaming down my cheek. Afterwards, several people came up to me and asked about the tune’s origin — assuming it was southern in origin. (Which, again, makes sense, as its Scottish style is a direct influence on the Appalachian sounds that would eventually blend into what is now called folk or roots or old time music.) However, in one of those coincidences of fate, while named for a community in New York state, the tune was first recorded for the PBS series in a studio that is located just a few miles from my daughter’s school — in the same stunning and historic valley she (and I) have come to love. So — in a beautiful metaphor for my daughter — it was from that valley the tune began its journey into the world and into the hearts of so many it has touched.