This true story was first published by WJEC in their ie – Inside English – magazine, see http://issuu.com/wjec_cbac/docs/issue12/1
Stopping by Fred’s on a Snowy Morning
It will remain one of my treasured memories of tutoring. January had brought snowfall: the sea was slushy with ice crystals, the shingle treacherous, the dog walkers double wrapped against the cold. I was glad my road through the woods had been gritted.
Fred went everywhere on his bike, since his legs could not bear his weight, and he hated the snow. As a fellow cyclist I had some sympathy with that, but his disability led to unpredictable behaviour. If he’d slept badly or was in pain, he might refuse to come downstairs or to do any work.
On this morning, you’ll understand, I did not expect much at all. However the course work for his English Entry Level had to be completed. As I was leaving home I gathered up a worksheet on Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Since his Gypsy Grandad still kept a horse Fred could feel for the relationship between man and beast.
I had not expected another student. Pat, Fred’s elder sister, had given up on school, and for eighteen months had refused all offers of help to ease her back for her exams. She was very much at a loose end. Social Services were watching the family, which unsettled her. Pat was there when I began reading Frost’s spellbinding lines. Out of habit I handed her a spare copy of the worksheet.
The magic of the first verse filled the room as we watched the garden fill up with snow. The dismantled bicycles, the broken furniture, the coils of cable waiting to be weighed in at the scrapyard: all took on a clean mantle of white. The snow was soon lovely, white and deep. (And I was suppressing a worry about getting home. There was always the train.)
We read it through twice before sharing the ideas that came to us. ‘He will not see me stopping here’, appealed to Fred. His disability disappeared on his bike, as he could drive the pedals without his ankles buckling. He was a quieter cyclist than me, no squeaks from the chain, all systems lubricated, no bell pinging over the potholes. He enjoyed riding through the woods near his grandparents’ home.
‘The darkest evening of the year’, said Pat: ‘that must be Christmas. He’s out on the sledge, taking presents to his family.’
‘He gives his harness bells a shake’: Fred said that that was just what a horse would do. ‘They like to know what’s going on.’ His Granddad’s Trojan never wore bells, but in the cavernous back shed hung a jangly old harness from when Fred’s great-grandfather used to haul the hops home in the Autumn time.
‘The sweep of easy wind and downy flake’: with the television off, we could hear the gentle snowfall, right before us.
‘“The woods are lovely, dark and deep”: now he’s thinking of topping himself’, said Pat, whose arms were criss-crossed with recent scars.
‘But he doesn’t,’ I put in. ‘He has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.’
‘All those Christmas presents,’ she replied.
‘And he owes it to the horse to get him indoors,’ said Fred. ‘Having to care for the horse saves his life.’
We put our thoughts on paper. ‘Why don’t you do the exam as well, Pat?’ I suggested, and so it came to pass, with Social Services to paying for her.
When I arrived that morning, their mother had told me off for riding out in such weather. Not for the last time, I was glad to be mad. Sister and brother both sat the exam and were happy with their marks. Pat beat Fred by one mark in English; he scored one more in Maths, although that was because we sat at the kitchen table, completing the last exercises on the last possible morning.
And I did make it home that day, on the last train to struggle through until late in the evening.