Christopher Roof and His Impact on Concord, Massachusetts
Christopher Roof was of the wrong generation, of the wrong time period maybe, or maybe even of the wrong world. So maybe it should have come as no surprise when he disappeared in 2010 – he was never really meant for here and now in the first place.
As a child growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, it was impossible to not know Mr. Roof. He was Alcott’s most beloved substitute, he led Sunday school classes at the First Parish Church, and he was forever wandering, like a modern-day Thoreau, through the streets of Concord. His appearance in a classroom would be cause for celebration – there would be no testing, no correcting papers, there’d be no work other than play. We would spend the day imagining, creating, all the while listening to his poetry in that calm and peaceful voice of his. As a child growing up in Concord, Mr. Roof was a light in an otherwise dark hallway, not because the other teachers were poor (in fact, every teacher I had at Alcott was exceptional in different ways) but because he was different, he was unlike the world around him and it made him stand out, it made him shine.
When it comes to Christopher’s childhood, it was a far cry from the ordinary life of the average Concord child. The child of fortune and fame (and later infamy), Chris was the son of the daughter who inherited a great deal of the Sheraton Hotel fortune. After spending his early childhood years in India, spending time with the family of Gandhi (amongst others), being introduced to the world of non-violence and peaceful protest by his parents (who were clearly in the process of their own spiritual journey), he returned to the states in 1957. In 1961 at 10 years old, his parents divorced and their paths went very different ways.
Chris’s high school years were spent studying at the Cambridge School of Weston where he was remembered fondly as a lover of fantasy writing. He was a solid student and a passionate writer who was considered shy by teachers.
When he graduated high school, Roof took a tour of Britain with his high school roommate Mark. His poetic voice was already forming and he said he felt very much at home in his travels in a journal he kept while traveling. It’s hard to tell from the writing of his that survived if Chris ever felt this sort of contentedness again. During his trip he traveled by bicycle (upwards of 80 miles some days), hiked, and hitchhiked regularly. Although he found joy in his debates with his travel partner, the scenery, and the food, his journal shows that the most profound source of joy was his interaction with children along the way.
It’s unclear exactly what it was that made this time spent with young people more meaningful, whether it was his own mindset immersed in a fantasy world only children could appreciate or something else, but his reflections from this trip show the beginnings of his connections with young people – and hint at his troubles with communicating effectively with everyone else.
In the fall of 1970, he was one of the 250 inaugural students accepted into the first class at Hampshire College. In 1972 he transferred to Emerson where he graduated with honors in 1974. One of his more influential professors at Emerson, Charlotte Winslow, remembered him as quiet and kind, saying, “He did not seem that much of a loner in spite of his admiration for Thoreau. Christopher was rather a gentle person who loved fantasy as evidenced by his writings and enjoyed playing with words.” He lauded Jane Austen, criticized Wordsworth, and compared Coleridge to J.R.R. Tolkien – in his writing, there was passion and there was confidence.
The juxtaposition of his love of fantasy and his desire to make a meaningful difference in the world explains how a man obsessed with Tolkien and Thoreau could also be arrested four times for civil disobedience and refuse in writing to his draft board to be involved with Vietnam (very appropriately, in a letter saturated with Thoreau quotes). It’s also this which might have led to a much more difficult life for Christopher as he got older, as he hadn’t necessarily learned how to separate his idealism and fantasy from reality and facts.
His mother’s disappearance and the media sensationalism surrounding her murder in 1979 definitely fostered tension in his family but it’s unclear how this actually impacted Chris at the time. His only recorded comments on the incident share little about his feelings and he never publicly wrote about the topic. It’s also something that managed to not make it to the ears of the children he would soon start working with in the Concord Public Schools.
Through the 1980s, Christopher wrote a number of children’s books, books that starred peers of mine in writing or illustration, that were dedicated to children in town, books that made us feel like we were being taught by a world-famous poet every time we were fortunate enough to have him as our substitute teacher in class. These books were all over the map even from one poem to another in the same collection. Roof was a technical poetic genius, using advanced rhyme and meter flawlessly in poems for elementary school students. He also appeared bipolar, one moment being incredibly childish and the next almost inappropriately mature for his intended audience. There were huge brushstrokes of him in his writing that we’d never have noticed as children but one can only wonder how more parents and townsfolk didn’t notice – or didn’t stop to think about what it all meant. “The Eccentric Young Fellow” is about a poet who lives in a church steeple and is misunderstood by everyone around him except children. There were hints of his desire to escape the confines of the small town and his fear of commercial failure that he was seeing come true with every single rejection letter he received – and he received many over the years.
“And that nonsense he writes couldn’t possibly sell/ So Bartholomew drifted around like a ghost/ His appearance becoming forlorn… Now he wished he was back in his steeple again/ If the people would leave him alone.”
It’s unclear how autobiographical any of this is, after being encouraged by his friend Kristina Joyce, Christopher decided to donate his papers to the Concord Public Library and seemingly haphazardly chose what writing to share, leaving it up to the public to glean what they could from it. It’s also unclear what happened that led to Christopher’s leaving his post at the First Parish and stopping his work in schools in Concord, but it is clear that at some point he stopped feeling that Concord was his home. Long-time friend Joyce says that he moved north saying that he, “liked New Hampshire because of the anonymity.” Although for the most part he was able to escape the people of Concord, and possibly memories of whatever happened that led to his feeling of being removed from that community, he wasn’t able to escape what he viewed as a failed career as a writer.
The fact is that Christopher Roof was a skilled writer, but it’s clear from the few people who had an opportunity to get close to him, that he lived in a world different than everyone else, a world removed. One writing peer, whose relationship with Roof didn’t last long, believed that he lived in an “atmosphere that was simply too rarefied”, likening his writing to that of a “precocious seventh grader” because of the simplicity and childishness of the problems and solutions presented. His aunt, wife of celebrated author Robin Moore, told him in a letter to him that she thought one of his stories was “wonderful” and that “with the right illustrations, I think it could easily become a children’s classic!” When asked about his uncle’s literary success, Roof expressed resentment to another friend in Concord, pointing out that his own writing was of much higher quality than Moore’s.
It wasn’t just his uncle or friends that Christopher ran into trouble with when it came to his beliefs or opinions – his immediate family found it challenging as well – and it’s possible that his unique idealism, this view of how he thought the world should look – and his opinion that his view was the only correct view, caused far more harm than good in his life. His brother Jonathan, who he was in and out of touch with throughout his adult life told me that even though they, “always got along well, it was kind a hard to engage with Chris” due to the fact that Chris “had very definite opinions about things and didn’t want to hear others' opinions about things.”
None of Christopher’s books ever were picked up by publishing houses and he opted to release them on his own with the money that he hadn’t otherwise been donating quietly (and in large sums) over the years to various Concord historical and nature societies (especially the Thoreau Society, where he was very involved for quite some time).
We may not have the answer as to where Christopher Roof is right now but we do know that after over thirty years of being a staple in Concord, he moved to New Hampshire, then up and disappeared – and all of a sudden it was like he never existed. There was no frantic search for him, there was little more than a Facebook page made – where one poster had the audacity to tell people not to bother looking for him because maybe he wanted not to be found. And now, over a year after his lease expired on his rented Nashua home, no one, not the family members who were willing to speak to me or his closest friends, have any idea what happened and where he is.
Maybe he was providing a clue when he told his close friend Kristina Joyce, “I can get on a bus and go anywhere from Nashua,” maybe he’s out wandering some other small town (like his hero Thoreau). Or possibly as the protagonist in his poem “A Visit From the Muse” from the Mythical Magical Poetry Book, maybe he had “written everything he had to write,” and it was time for him to take his leave of this world (or as his brother Jonathan worded it, maybe he just decided to “hang it up”), a world that he felt, and I’d agree, never quite appreciated him enough while he was a part of it.
What I do know is that Christopher Roof’s life mattered, a lot, and not just to me. In a world where it’s hard to tell how people feel about you and it’s hard to tell whether someone is on your side or not – there was never any question as to where Mr. Roof stood. He stood with kindness, and he stood with young people. Christopher Roof stood for believing in a more magical and more beautiful world and I only wish I’d had the opportunity to let him know that I stand with him, a great number of us did. Wherever he happens to be right now, we can only hope that he knows the impact he was able to make in our lives, and hopefully, it will teach us to make sure that we let the people around us know just how much they mean to us – and for that, he was the most valuable teacher in Concord.