This is my favorite thing to do, like, ever. Below, a deleted scene from a recently published Harper’s article on Anne Sextons’ rock band. That I wrote. Obviously.
Wayland High School in Wayland, Massachusetts, looks very different than it did back in the sixties, the secretary in the office tells me. It used to be laid out like a college campus: separate buildings for each subject, so the students had to weather harsh Eastern winters just to go from science class to math class. They redid the whole thing two years ago, at which point they consolidated everything into two spotless modern buildings. Steve Rizzo works in the other one as a resource teacher, so it takes him a few minutes to get to the office. I expect to have to search his face for some of that quarterback handsomeness everyone mentioned, but it’s right there for the taking, despite the fact that he is now in his sixties. Sandy-blond and solidly built, Rizzo returned to Wayland High School to teach special needs students not long after he graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1973. He has been here ever since. He still plays music, and has even learned to read it since his days in Anne Sexton & Her Kind. He brings his guitar to school nearly every day, either to practice during a break from teaching or to jam with the kids a little bit. “If I can do it with the kids, yeah, I like that,” he says. On the site ratemyteachers.com, one of his students from 2004 wrote, “Can play guitar behind the back!!!” [sic]
Rizzo’s personality seems largely unchanged from when he was a student in Sexton and Clawson’s English class. There is a contentedness about him that slows things down and simplifies them, but his pulse visibly quickens when he brings out an old volume of Sexton’s poetry. “The thing that kills me is, I didn’t know language could be used like this,” he says. “There were certain parts of these poems that would just catch me.” He flips the book to the first section of the poem “Eighteen Days Without You,” a series she wrote for her psychiatrist, who doubled as her lover. “‘I hibernated under the covers/last night, not sleeping until dawn/came up like twilight and the oak leaves/whispered like money, those hangers on.’” He reads it straight from the page, believing it to need no final comment on his part. It is just beautiful language, which is enough.
“And just the way she said that last line, so full of pathos. You are gone. The way it trailed out of her mouth, I remember getting chills just up there playing.”
Rizzo remembers his experience with the group as an education of sorts, less in the academics of poetry and music than the life of adult artists, full of uncertainties, heartache and, occasionally, marvelous freedom. He remembers Anne as mesmerizing and very maternal. Though she would occasionally chide Rizzo for being late to rehearsals, she couldn’t help but try to gently include him in her world, oftentimes stopping during practice to make sure that he really understood poems with subtle (or less than) sexual themes, like “That Day,” which they wrote a march song for. (“If a phenomenon arrives shouldn’t the Magi come bearing gifts?/ Yesterday was the day I bore gifts for your gift/and came from the valley to meet you on the pavement.”) Clawson and Sexton were like a platonic aunt and uncle couple to him, and they offered him, in turn, a different kind of role model than the ones he was surrounded by in white-bread Wayland.
“For me, that was a very valuable experience… to learn the depth of failure, maybe, and not getting what you wanted, or having it be exactly like you thought it would be,” he says. “I would say that was a valuable experience for me at that time in my life. Otherwise, I would have just go on to Northeastern and continued to play football… ”
“When I read back to the poems, I can almost remember some of the moments,” he says, flipping through cheaply printed concert posters decorated with Rorschach inkblots. “I can’t remember all of the music. Some of it’s gone.”
When I get up to leave, Rizzo smiles at me, and says, “From now on, whenever you hear the leaves rustling in the fall, you’ll think they sound like money.” And I’m pretty sure he’s right.