There’s a lake in Central Massachusetts with a moniker that stretches 45 (or 49) letters long, depending on who you ask.
It’s as revered as it is ridiculous. I know of its lore because of Frank DeMello. He was my fifth-grade teacher.
The room roared when he tried, in vain, to teach us how to pronounce it. He demonstrated with large, perforated signs to denote each of the dozens of syllables. Half the class had to help him hold them up.
Maybe we’d get it by the end of the school year, he conceded.
Mr. DeMello — “Mr. D,” as we called him during Howard Elementary School’s 1997/1998 school year — died on July 7. He was 74 years old.
I’ve thought of him every day since.
It was in his West Bridgewater, Massachusetts classroom — the one facing Howard Street and adorned with a golden Gadsden flag and other various trinkets emblematic of the American Revolution — that my 10-year-old self witnessed, for the first time, a person set aflame by their profession. An adult who L-O-V-E-D their job, and passionately.
I knew we were meant for each other early on, admittedly, when I observed him regularly truncate “math time” to pad his history agenda with a few more minutes.
Tread lightly, he did not. With a slight rasp to his voice, Mr. D always moved urgently through our homeroom. He frantically piled packets, flashcards, textbooks, and dominoes atop our desks as if our collective lives depended on what we were about to learn next.
One afternoon, we were met with a flurry of manila journals. On their covers were rough, simple outlines of multi-sail ships.
“Now,” Mr. D decreed, “you are English adventurers in new America, keeping thorough records of the trials and tribulations of foreign lands and their countless perils.”
“You have received your supplies and are ready to sail. You are also receiving your Discovery Journal in which you will record your adventures. A typical entry will be a combination of what takes place in our classroom simulation and your imagination. An entry may be as long as you like but must contain the main events of the day, as well as what goes on in your imagination. Your first entry will focus on the following:
• Make up an identity for yourself and your family.
• Tell why you want to come to America.
• Describe your ships and the supplies you are bringing with you.
• Tell me about the other members of your group. Will you get along and cooperate or will you disagree and fight? Do you think everyone will do their share of the work?”
• “Any incomplete or missing journal entries will lose food units for your colony.”
These were extremely high stakes for pre-teen colonists, who — in the late ‘90s — barely had the skills to rear digital key-chain pets.
Multiple competing colonies occupied the classroom: the Super Spaniards, the Funky Frogs, the English Adventurers.
Upon initial assignment, I immediately returned home and swiped matches from Mum’s kitchen to toast the journal’s edges. Authenticity was key to believability, I thought, and the fate of my people depended on it.
I spent hours writing in the flimsy thing — about my made-up family’s rituals, messages in bottles, dramatic wartimes, a keen interest in astronomy and cartography, and, of course, the infinite “struggles of the harvest.”
“My name is Diana Webb. I’m 22 years told. I lived in London, England with my mother and sister, Johanna. I’ve always dreamed of sailing the seas and venturing into new worlds with great challenges and tasks to follow. When I heard the offer from by best friend, Elizabeth Moore, I couldn’t refuse…”
Was this a thinly veiled Godfather reference? Possibly. But, more probably, it was my elementary-school watershed moment.
Mr. D had revealed to me something I would come to very madly love: creative writing.
He graded my entries meticulously, for both grammar and content, and included thoughtful leading questions and comments.
With his every penned stroke of encouragement and spelling correction, I strove to write longer, with more detail and flourish.(And, sometimes, to my present-day embarrassment, with even higher drama. Please keep in mind I was 10 and had also recently discovered a rather romantic strain of Star Wars fan fiction.)
“Dear Journal: This colony is a strong one. From everything we have been through, this is the most unimaginable thing that has happened. I can’t believe the agony of my story. I’m afraid to tell it. But, my dear father, God rest his soul, said that when the worst possible thing happens you realize as you look back on it, things could be worse...”
In summary, there was a small, crops-related squabble between the colonists and the Native Americans. Everyone survived, according to my records.
In a sealed plastic bin beneath the twin-bed frame I slept in as a child, my grandmother recently found Diana Webb’s journal. It was tucked amid other yellowed stacks of illustrations and books reports tied to Mr. D’s curriculum.
The best parts of people go on, always — in their stories and lessons and warm gestures. If those people happened to be teachers, the ripples remain infinite.
I had forgotten — temporarily — the jolt of joy that comes with learning and unearthing something new and meaningful; how I had felt tiptoeing around the kitchen, in search of the matches that would charge the perfect and most compelling amount of detail within my garbled, charmingly unwieldy colonist backstory.
It was Mr. D’s supreme gift and skill to grow a child’s sense of wonder through his own exuberance; to lead them, with pomp and passion, toward the things they might just learn to love, or love to learn.
Because of Frank DeMello, I know certain passages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” by heart.
I know what scrimshaw is, and in which New Bedford whaling museum to find it.
I know, in my bones, that I love to write creatively, imaginatively, verbosely— even if it’s just for me.
And I know there’s a small lake in Central Massachusetts with a name so long and convoluted, I may never get its pronunciation just right.
But that’s not really the point. It wasn’t Frank DeMello’s, anyway.