Schoolmates … senior year, 1950
Recently one of the “Jeopardy” questions was: “What poem ended with these last two lines… out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air.” Believe it or not it was an easy one for me to answer correctly since I went to High School with the author, Sylvia Plath, and it's one of her most famous poems, “Lady Lazarus”.
Yes, that's us from the Wellesley High School yearbook of 1950 and you would never guess that the sweet girl pictured above me could be the author of those lines. I can't say that she and I were best friends but we were definitely companions. We sat next to each other in Mr. Crocketts English class and would often critique each other. We were also in the school play “The Admirable Crichton” by J. M. Barrie and on the same tennis team. So, if you had asked me then what her future would be I would have been hard pressed to answer, except to say that she would probably have some sort of writing career.
She had always been intense and, to the high school standards of the time, I suppose a bit peculiar too. (A suicide attempt in the early 50's reinforced her differences.) She was a very pretty girl, fun loving and flirty ...which I'm sure was a cover-up for the deeper feelings that she wasn't able to share with us, although she tried very hard to be accepted. I remember one Sunday in particular when our Unitarian church group set out on a picnic. When the boys spied Sylvia they made sure that she rode with us and I knew there was going to be trouble. She was up front between two of them and became more and more uncomfortable as they kept telling her how she made them feel and then, as we slowed down at a work area, she suddenly lurched forward and threw herself out of the car. We were so relieved to see that she only suffered scrapes and bruises but I've often wondered what it did to her soul.
After she committed suicide in 1963 the British critic A. Alvarez wrote these words: “It was only recently that the peculiar intensity of her genius found it’s perfect expression...she was systematically probing that narrow, violent area between the viable and the impossible, between experience which can be transmitted into poetry and that which is overwhelming. It represents a totally new breakthrough in modern verse, and establishes her, I think, as the most gifted poet of our time. The loss to literature is inestimable.”
53 years have passed since Sylvia died but I remember her fondly. I wonder if anything would have been different if we, her classmates, had made the small effort to get to know her better.