I’ve been talking to my younger son about one of life’s most important (and undercelebrated) skills: getting along with people with whom you’re not actually friends. When he gets saddled with a math partner who won’t help or an art partner who doesn’t want to share a pencil, we talk about how working well with others is one of the main challenges of being an adult as well as being a kid; it’s one problem that really doesn’t go away when you climb out of the sandbox.
Right now, in my first-year English class we’re doing soldier poetry, talking about the portraits of working life in the trenches, in the sky, in the war rooms. Ivor Gurney’s “Servitude” keeps ringing in my head; it was the same for Gurney as it is for Felix, fetching files and tea for “fools made brazen by conceit” or slogging it out over a collaborative story in French about a train trip taken by a monkey and his friend:
If it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.
Only the love of comrades sweetens all,
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Hell-fire may appal,
Not guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.
Sure, my own working life is a fantasy camp compared to Gurney’s years in uniform, but it has its own particular challenges. Gurney’s message still holds true: for all the harried nature of mid-term marking, late-night revisions, deadlines, and committee meetings, there’s also dignity to be found in shared challenges, pride in common goals, and real pleasure in the company of wonderful colleagues. This little red gift, found glowing on my desk one early still-black morning, reminded me that Gurney is right: “the love of comrades sweetens all.” And so we continue.
Gratitude always to the Poetry Foundation.