The Best Lessons
Learning who you want to be —
and who you want to be with.
By Layng Martine Jr. ’60
If going to school at Mount Hermon taught me anything decades ago, it taught me what kind of people I wanted to associate with for the rest of my life.
The men and women who were in charge at the school had the highest expectations and standards, but they also showed me and other students an abiding kindness and care. They valued us for who we truly were, beyond our skills in the classroom. It was as though they knew that being a responsible straight shooter would take care of most problems.
There was Mr. Piscuskas, my much-loved geometry teacher. He had no trouble writing “NTC, Layngo” (“Not Too Cool”) next to the 68 I received on an exam one day, but he also made sure there were a few of his wife’s homemade brownies waiting for me when I came to his apartment that night for extra help.
After the dean of students, Jervis Burdick, called me to his living room to give me the school’s most serious punishment — “six and eighteen” (six weeks without leaving campus, 18 hours of Saturday labor) — for slipping over to the Northfield campus without permission, he was still kind. Instead of delivering a verbal whipping, reciting the rulebook, or telling me I’d let him down, he just smiled and said, “Do you want a root beer or anything? That moment more than 60 years ago gave me an enduring look at the kind of man I hoped to be. Calm, measured, and understanding.
“The first time I saw her, she looked so beautiful that a bomb went off in my heart, but I did not yet know how unflappable and wise she could be.”
As I grew up, I gained some of those qualities. But the woman I married was the one who truly shared Mr. Burdick’s mindset, and she helped me get there. Linda’s warm, reasoned nature was priceless as we raised three sons and made a life together. The first time I saw her, she looked so beautiful that a bomb went off in my heart, but I did not know how unflappable and wise she was until early in our marriage, when a business failure cost us everything, including our house, and also years later, when she was crippled in a car accident. Both times, she barely batted an eyelash. She adjusted and moved on to the next step. There was no blaming, no complaining, no “Why me?”
Back when we were dating, there was an old stone chapel down a dirt road in Waccabuc, New York, near where both of our families lived. In many ways, it was a mini-version of Mount Hermon’s grand Memorial Chapel, a place that comforted me more than once when I was a lost and struggling teenager, and a place that Linda and I and our boys would always admire during our Mount Hermon visits.
That old Waccabuc chapel was our place. Some nights, Linda and I would drive there in my dad’s old VW bug with the sunroof open, the stars visible above us. We would sit on the cool stone steps, dappled in moonlight, and look out at the tall trees. One night, Linda said, “This is how I want to live — peacefully, with time to hear the crickets.” We leaned into each other to ward off the chill. “I think we can do it,” I said.
Layng Martine Jr. is the author of the memoir Permission to Fly. He’s also a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, having written songs recorded by Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Elvis Presley. Here’s a song titled “Little Bit of Magic,” which he wrote in 1983 and re-recorded in 2016.
Linda and I were married in that chapel more than 55 years ago. We still go back to visit it most summers. The road is paved now, but nothing else has changed. We park our car. I slip Linda’s wheelchair from the trunk. We cross the grass and peek in the windows. We stop on the steps, the ones we sat on so long ago. The tall trees, our guardians, are still in place. And the quiet. Just like we left it.
A Little Bit of Magic. (audio file)
We roll the wheelchair down the brick path where we walked through confetti on our wedding day, and I can’t help smiling. Because decades after I first saw that chapel and thought of Mount Hermon, it’s still a reminder of the school where I learned who I wanted to be, and the kind of people I hoped to find.
Photos courtesy of Layng Martine