IT IS A LONGSTANDING TRADITION AT FAY that after dinner on a boarding student’s birthday, he or she is treated to a birthday muse, a carefully crafted poem or limerick that celebrates the birthday boy or girl in rhyme. Three friends carry the birthday cake out of the kitchen as the students in the Dining Room clap in unison, and once the candles are extinguished, the muse begins.
Delivered by the Duty Administrator (the faculty member in charge of dinner that evening), the muses can be hysterically funny, silly, or sweet, but they are always tailored to the recipient. If the student has a favorite sport, is obsessed with a particular song, is known for staying up after lights out, or has trouble keeping his or her dorm room tidy, you can bet that those details will be captured in the muse.
“The birthday muse is one of those little things that make the boarding experience really special at Fay,” says Dean of Residential Life Max Bogaert. “We have young kids who are far away from home on their birthday, and the muse gives them a special sense of belonging.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the birthday muses were read after dinner by Headmaster Brooks Harlow. “My dad always read them with great flourish in his huge booming voice,” recalls his daughter, Alice Harlow Ronconi ’75. “The poems were always very specific to the student, which is why the students appreciated them. The muses might poke fun at a little foible, but they were always a positive affirmation,” says Alice. “I remember a lot of raucous laughter!” Students wondering how Mr. Harlow knew so many specific details about their daily lives would sometimes summon the courage to ask him whether he had really written the muse, to which he would respond, “I am not the muse, I just read what the muse provides!”
So who really writes the birthday muse? During the Harlow years, the muse was none other than Brooks Harlow’s wife, Mimi. Mimi was the eyes and ears of campus, going to every evening meal and athletic event, which is how she gleaned all the little details that captured each student so perfectly. “My mom had a lot of fun with the muses and took such pleasure in writing them,” says Alice. Tom Higgins ’87 came to Fay as a boarding student in sixth grade, and he shared with us the birthday muse that he received in 1986
. “Mrs. Harlow was very nice to me,” he recalls, and looking back on his muse, he notes that, “she really had me pegged!” Cathy Logan, Mr. Harlow’s assistant, would type the muse onto Mr. Harlow’s stationery to be presented to each student along with handwritten birthday wishes. Once the Harlows left Fay, the muse-writing duties were taken over by student advisors, a tradition that continues today—although the moose officially receives the credit!
Over the years, the muse has taken the form of limericks and multi-stanza poems; the muse has evolved in recent years and on some occasions is now delivered in rap form. Art teacher Chris Kimball and Upper School English teacher Rich Roberts have a friendly rivalry going to see who can create the best rap muse with songs like Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky,” and Biggy Small’s “Hypnotize” providing rhythmic inspiration. Knowing that the faculty DA on duty will have to deliver their creations just adds to the fun. “I get a lot of pleasure out of making my colleagues rap,” notes Chris.
However, the real payoff to the hours spent searching for just the right rhyme is always seeing the reaction of the student being celebrated. “I’ve been privileged enough to read birthday muses to kids in the Dominican Republic or on spring break trips when they are feeling twice removed from home,” says Chris, “and they just light up. They love it!”
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