All of the juniors at Deerfield Academy are required to write, memorize, and perform declamations as part of their English classes. Congratulations to this year’s three winners: Emmett Knowlton, Eleanor Parker, and Mia Fowler.
The full declamations of Emmett Knowlton and Eleanor Parker are shown below.
Rocky, by Emmet Knowlton
In 1954 my grandfather Attilio Rocky Castellani was the #1 ranked middleweight prizefighter in the world. That year, he fought for the world championship against Bobo Olson and lost, in a decision. His biggest claim to fame was that he knocked down Sugar Ray Robinson, and in the world of professional boxing that’s a very big deal. But of course all of this was a long time before I was born. And really my most vivid memory of my grandfather is of him sitting silently at the dining room table at his house in Atlantic City doing the very same 25 piece puzzles that I did as a two year old. You see, the last 10 years of my grandfather’s life, which is practically as long as I knew him, he had dementia, a form of Alzheimer’s which is what happens when you’re hit in the head as many times as he was. He fought over a hundred amateur fights and close to ninety professional fights. It’s no wonder he lost his memory.
It’s hard to be a fighter. It’s the kind of thing one does when there aren’t a lot of other options. My great grandfather was coalminer. He spoke no English and came to America from a small town in Italy. When his wife died, my grandfather’s three sisters took responsibility for his care. My grandfather was once caught stealing from a supermarket because he didn’t have any money to buy food. The only thing he could do to avoid jail was to enlist in the Marines. His father signed the papers and my grandfather lied about his age, and soon he was sitting in foxholes in Iwo Jima and fighting a war. Only 16 years old and fighting for his country. The other soldiers used to ask him how it was that he was able to shave when no one else could. He’d just laugh because he never wanted to tell them that he still didn’t even have to shave. It was in the Marine Corp where he started fighting, and became the middleweight Marine Corp champion. When he got out of the Marines he immediately turned professional.
He was a great fighter and fought all the best of his generation, Bobo Olson, Tiger Jones, Sugar Ray Robinson. He fought in Madison Square Garden and in The Cow Palace in San Francisco. He finally retired in 1956. When he retired he opened a bar in Atlantic City, called Rocky’s. Remember, this is Atlantic City before the casinos, with the Steel Pier and the flying horses. It was a seaside resort town with a boardwalk. Atlantic City may have been nice, but I don’t think Rocky’s was an especially nice place. My mother always says that they never saw my grandfather much when they were growing up because he was always at the bar. He went to work when they were going to bed and he was coming home from work when they were going to school. He was someone who worked 7 days a week and never closed his bar, not even on Christmas.
My grandfather was a fighter and barkeeper. He grew up in a coal town in Pennsylvania in a household of three sisters, no mother, and Italian as their first language. It makes sense, that with only an 8th grade education, he owned a bar. It wasn’t like there were a lot of options for a tough guy who knew only how to fight, even if it meant you never saw your wife or kids. He fought so his family could have what he never did and in the process of giving it to them he sure missed out on a lot.
Sometimes when I’m getting ready for sit-down dinner at Deerfield I wonder what my grandfather, Rocky Castellani, would think if he could see me, Winthrop Emmett Knowlton, the youngest son of his only daughter, in my blue blazer and tie, in this incredibly safe and beautiful place, the same age he was when he was sitting in foxholes in Iwo Jima fighting a war, or thinking about his next fight.
And, I wonder if Attilio Sr., my great-grandfather, a first generation Italian coalminer, could have ever even imagined a place like Deerfield, or the life-style his lineage now affords. In three generations, this story probably best represents the consequences of the American Dream. Me attending a place like Deerfield probably was not why my great-grandfather worked in a coalmine, or why my grandpa fought in a ring and tended a bar. But taking risks and working hard, and not being afraid to get dirty or beat up even, so that their offspring wouldn’t have to, was what drove my ancestors. And ultimately, what allowed my mother and her siblings, and my siblings and me to live dramatically better lives. Our storied lifestyle, especially the incredible privilege of being able to attend a place called Deerfield Academy, is probably far beyond my great grandfather’s and my grandfather’s comprehension, or even their wildest dreams. A grandson at a fancy place called Deerfield where the sons and daughters of kings have called home is a very long way to come from a Pennsylvania coal mine or even a boxing ring.
Only in American, by Eleanor Parker
Marketing 101: when you advertise “FREE speech,” what can you expect but a run on goods? The American language is a tradition of ever-changing words by and for and about the people. It’s car talk, girl talk, sweet talk, trash talk; it’s colour with a ‘u’ subtracted and it’s whatever you wanna add. A free republic, after all, needs free and distinctive coinage. Americans coin words to speak what’s on American minds (Grub. Popularity. Greenbacks.), coin with a purpose (suffrage), or coin just for kicks: we make “f” words into “ph” words, like phat—the groovy of 1992—or pharm—plants and animals raised for drug purposes. Inventing Amerkin is the national pastime in which phat pharmers, presidents, and celebrities alike can take part (though W.’s unique strategeries got him Dixie Chicked back in ’03.)
Of course, free speech starts with some loans. By the 1700s, we’re taking Native American words hostage and sticking it to the man in England: caucus, chipmunk, mugwump. Immigrants bring German—kerplunk—Creole—bayou. Thanks to free trade, our slang today adorns sweatshirts in Japan, and a good ol’ U.S. obscenity will earn you a giggle or a snarl of recognition pretty much anywhere. Foreign policy? Word domination: while other languages merely repeat our words, we adapt theirs for ourselves, into choiceamundo confections.
In trying times, we turn to free speech. American Dialect Society’s word of the year, 2006? Plutoed: Made obsolete; demoted. 2007: subprime. 2008: bailout. It’s a good thing “all correct” was shortened to OK in 1839, since we need a different AC these changing-climate days. And the ‘60s had their issues too: see ego trip, acid trip—racism, sexism, ageism.
Today, when we’re not still talking PC, we’re talking PCs. 2009 American word of the year: tweet. Of the decade: google. Digital terms may fill several Internet for Idiots bestsellers, but since when have we ever let a new toy off the hook? Cars bring a whole sub-vocabulary of joyrides, rubbernecking, backseat drivers, thumbin’ a ride—a hearty helping of American traits good and bad. And our need for speed does have its downsides. High school classes are peppered with grinds; we cram our college coursework into all-nighters—early symptoms of becoming either workaholics or burn-outs.
Like anything, free speech can be advertised through the boob tube. “Cowabunga!” starts on the Howdy-Doody Show in the 1950s and makes it all the way to Bart Simpson’s mouth in the ‘90s. Buffy gives us “Slayer slang” that same decade. Thanks to TV, teen-speak can spread from sea to shining sea, and no speech rebels as freely or democratically as that of the American teenager. We make nouns into adjectives—my bad, adjectives into nouns—and add prefixes and suffixes scandociously. We abbrev, we prolongate, we mash together into ginormous compounds. Expressions come, like, West Coast to East Coast and from da hood to prep schools and back again. We Yanks may laugh at y’all down in Dixie, but at least North and South can understand one another. Like Walt, we sing of ourselves in one untranslatable barbaric yawp.
And we set that song to music. American success story in one word: jazz. Accessible, energetic, improvised—no adopted art, but the brainchild of American innovation and imagination. The word itself starts as ragtime, becomes slang, weathers “sexually inappropriate” allegations for a decade, and finally becomes our word of the century. America: a land where vulgar slang can rise to social acceptability through sheer persistence.
Said H.L. Mencken of American in 1921, “No other tongue of modern times admits foreign words and phrases more readily; none is more careless of precedents; none shows a greater fecundity and originality of fancy.” Sounds like free speech to me. Word.
American Dialect Society, comp. “Words of the Year.” [American Dialect Society homepage]. American Dialect Society, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. .
Mencken, H. L. “The General Character of American English.” The American Language. 2nd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. N. pag. Bartleby.com. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. .
PBS, comp. “Words that Shouldn’t Be?” Do You Speak American? PBS, 2005. Web. 7 Feb. 2010. .
N.B.: my parents, my advisor (Ms. Friends), and Miles Griffis all gave me (minor) feedback throughout the process of writing this declamation.