Reading, Writing, and Chocolate Chips: Reflections from Bill Burgan II '47
Sometimes what looks like bad luck can be the best.
As the youngest of three brothers, I had the distinction in early life that whenever we all got sick, l got sickest. I missed so much time in first grade that my parents decided to try schooling me at home, with my mother as teacher. She had taught math in high school, and her inquiries into teaching a sick son soon put her in touch with Calvert’s Home Instruction Program.
My mom was a super-affectionate but exacting teacher, and her corrections and suggestions resulted after a couple of years — I had turned 8 — in a job offer from Calvert! She would tutor students with difficulties in the three r’s, and her pay would be supplemented by free attendance at the day school for any of her children who were the right age. Though my health had improved, it remained rocky enough through Twelfth Age to raise doubts about sending me — with a number of my classmates — to Gilman. A striking alternative was an offer of one-on-one tutelage. It came from the recently appointed head of Home Instruction, Archibald Hart, and my mom eagerly accepted.
We could hardly believe our luck. A former Gilman student with a Princeton Ph.D. in English, Dr. Hart had come to Calvert in 1944, to run the Home Instruction program. The entire school basement was devoted to it, mostly for packaging and sending study materials to students in homes that were scattered worldwide. But Dr. Hart’s office had barely room for his desk, and the small one of his new pupil.
My reading and writing in that little room had unique openness. Classics included not only poems by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their successors, but fiction by writers like Henry James and Thomas Mann. And halfway through the morning, Dr. Hart and I shared a 20-minute pause for chocolate chips, a dozen each. To this day I recall the careful counting, distribution, fun eating and talking, then back to work.
I should make clear that the work itself was no joke. My heartfelt, written praise of some favorite poem earned me an F, a grade that stayed with me the rest of my life as a caution against gushing. But my grades were mostly A’s, and what normally grabbed my attention was conversation about what I’d read and written, and how the two of us saw it.
Dr. Hart often invited me to join his wife and children at their lovely home in Ruxton, and more than once took me in his station wagon — sometimes with his daughter Betsy, herself a gifted painter — to see art not just in Baltimore but in Washington, DC. It was on the road to DC that he promised to show me a painting “like nothing you’ve ever seen.” He was right. It was Renoir’s “Boating Party” in the Phillips Collection, and I love it to this day.
As time passed, “Dr. Hart” became “Archie,” and remained a dear friend for life. My health improved, and I continued to have wonderful luck in my teachers. But the illness that forced a two-year pause in grade school gave me the freest, most joyful learning of my life.