2,860 Miles in Lowell
An essay from David Daniel in honor of the first day of school, with a lesson for all of us . . .
2,860 Miles in Lowell
By David Daniel
Roughly the distance from Boston to L.A. or back and forth to NYC seven times. That’s how far we went. But this wasn’t a lengthy road trip. These were unmapped city miles, walking miles, accrued at about ten per week, over fall and spring terms, across eleven years, as my students and I poked into the nooks and crannies, alleys and courtyards, rooftops and riverwalks of this fascinating old mill city.
As a teacher at the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School, part of my responsibility was to see that students got regular physical exercise. The class was called Mind & Motion and, in the absence of a gymnasium, the city was our gym, our library, our laboratory. We met last period of the day. I’d take attendance and say, “Let’s go out and get some air. Let’s see what we can discover today.”
Some afternoons we’d ball up at one of the public courts or in the gym at the Hellenic School, or play soccer behind Tsongas Arena. For a time I had a co-teacher and she and I would alternate taking a sub-group of the class on runs. Most of the miles, though, were walking, autumn to winter to spring, open to the gifts of the season.
And, oh, the things we saw.
Everything afforded opportunities for learning. Markers, plaques, and gravestones taught history; campaign signs provided lessons in civics; ethnic neighborhoods spoke of sociology; sunlight and shadow on old brick walls gave us art; walks along the rivers and canals—where we saw beaver, turtles, great blue herons, and carp—taught ecology. And there were the geometries of downtown buildings and intersecting alleys. Once we watched a large foam-fabric snowman floating down the Concord River on the spring flood, bound for the Merrimack, his carrot nose up-thrust like an orange mast. A meditation, perhaps, on impermanence.
Sometimes we’d buy a copy of the Sun and sit in Jack Kerouac Park. The game was: Suppose you know nothing about Lowell; what might you glean from reading a front page story? An editorial? An obituary?
The city gave us entrée. Perhaps it was the school lanyards we wore, the bright, go-ahead green of traffic signals, or the alluring light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock in The Great Gatsby. We went where curiosity took us, over cobbles and asphalt, concrete and grass. If no sign expressly forbade it we often entered, always respectful, quieter than a gaggle of high schoolers is expected to be.
The mighty Merrimack was both a destination and a journey. Some days we’d play touch football on its banks. One of our balls, and more than a few of our Frisbees, floated away. If I remarked that even on his best day Tom Brady couldn’t toss a football across that expanse, invariably a student or two, taking the bait, would pick up a rock. A really good throw—and those kids had arms!—might make it halfway across before falling with a soft splash. They’d shake their heads in good-natured chagrin. Another lesson learned.
Life lessons, for me too. That the city is a web of life, of linkages, present to past and back again, time performing its magic act. A place where grunge co-exists with gloss and both keep company with beauty. A monument, not only to those who built it, and shed blood for it, whose names are everywhere, but to us who sustain it by living here now. Lessons that, like the river in its long journey, there are tumbles over rocks and spans of slack water, and, ultimately a conjoining with the sea.
“Look at these buildings,” I say as we conclude a September day’s walk along Middle Street, just in time for afternoon dismissal. “Look up. See the dates? There isn’t a person on earth now who was alive when these were built. And these’ll be here long after we’re gone—or after I’m gone, at least.”
I want to add (but it’s good to leave some things unsaid), “Make this place a choice, not a sentence. Live here because maybe you’ve been away for a while—off to college, perhaps, or national service, or a job, or for the grand adventure of love—and something in it called you back. Then, more than just a city, it’s a home.”
David Daniel taught for eleven years at the Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School, which he calls “the best little undiscovered high school in the Bay State” and which will be starting its 24th year in a few days. He is on the adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he teaches creative writing.
21 Responses to 2,860 Miles in Lowell
A thought-stirring reflection on life, time, nature and the city. Thanks once again Fave!
Thank you, David. Those students were fortunate to have you as their teacher.
Maybe the best writing on Lowell since Jack Kerouac. Light and deep at the same time, and so much music in it!
Perfectly written piece on a place we hold dear to us! Happy 2019-20 school year to the students of LMACS. Thanks for your words Dave
Dave, you have a wonderful way of looking at life and our world. That was so beautifully written. What a lovely first day of school present!
A friend and former co-worker.
Yours is a real classroom of the world — the world that gave many of us our roots.
You do great honor to those who came before us and give inspiration to the next generation.
“For all that has been, Thanks! For all that will be, Yes!”
Dag Hammersjold’s sentiment captures my feelings.
Dave Daniel born in Weymouth Lives in Westford but if you follow his heart it leads to LOWELL a true Lowellian.
Well done shipmate.
Mr. Daniel, you were one of my favorites during my three years at LMACS. Thank you for this brief and memorable read!!
‘keeping company with beauty.’ good company indeed.. well done David.
David, “ Big D “ always sees the depth – heart and soul- wherever he exists. He “ Gets it,” he “ Teaches it, “ and he “ Lives it!”
David, you are so passionate….teaching is your “calling”. They may be youngsters now but I’m certain they will reap the benefits of your gift to them. Their world was shaped by your commitment….. The School system is so blessed to have you……gram
Thank you, Dave. A moving tribute to an historic place…a lesson that we should find a way to honor our special place.
You are a joy for this world which now desperately needs words of encouragement, reassurance that beauty can be found in all things big and small, and nothing should be seen as ordinary. Every breath, every smile is a miracle.
Your students are so fortunate to know you.
Your publications sit proudly on my bookcase – each precious paragraph profoundly appreciated.
And yet if this had been written by a student we would know what had been learned. Also the implication that children are “sentenced” to Lowell is a bald hard sell for Charter Schools
What a moving essay about this city, which imprinted itself on me in the 24 hours or so that I was there, and now I’m longing again to go back. Dave Daniel writes like those great painters that illuminate their subject in a way that makes you see it there fully embodied before you and also see through it to something that can only be captured in a pointing-to, telling us about life itself and all that goes with that.
As usual, big D well said. Your approach should be part of every curriculum and can be implemented through out the greater boston area. Having run threw many streets throughout Boston and the South shore it wasn’t until I was forced stop running and began walking that I noticed all the learning experiences right in front of me as well around every corner especially in Quincy, Weymouth and of course Boston. Architecture,enineering,HISTORY And even neighborhood culture. All of this motivated me to take note due the research and even in my old age learn what I could never personally learned in any traditional class room seting GREAT JOB
David – thanks for conveying the gifts a GREAT teacher/professor can give his or her students, and the gifts received in return.
Also appreciate what can be found, seen, treasured and taught in Lowell. I enjoy the phrase “A place where grunge co-exists with gloss and both keep company with beauty.” You gotta love the city!
Just back from a tour of European cities, and reading this through the filter of then-and-now described here, the layering of city-story out there in public for all of us to read as constant students. What an effective teaching method–get outside and look around, see what the place has to say to you. I’ve always felt that the more you know about a place, the more you will care about it and take care of it.
Tell me and I may forget. Putting these fortunate students through the ‘steps’ was a learning experience they will never forget. The world needs more teachers like yourself. You are an inspiration. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to read and respond. Your words meant a lot to me!
Excellent writing, but more importantly, the observations and the teaching are excellent as well. Your students were lucky…