Skeleton Keys by Nancy Mugele


This past summer I lent a student my well-worn copy of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass. The story follows Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy as they search for four keys that unlock a wooden box delivered one month before Jeremy’s 13th birthday. The box is from Jeremy’s father who died a few years before. If you have not read it, do, it is unforgettable. The book also has a connection to this year’s All Middle School read at Kent School, Every Soul a Star, also by Wendy Mass. The author will be one of our endowed Kudner Leyon Visiting Writers this year, and will speak with our students on March 25, but that is another story.

The reason I am sharing this is that on the first day of school a shiny gold skeleton key, and the returned book, were left on my desk. I was not in my office when they were delivered, and when I walked in and spotted the gleaming key, I was so touched. The book had obviously made an impact.

The key sits on my desk and nearly once a day a student picks it up, turns it over longingly, and asks about it. I like to say that the key was given as a gift by a student and it symbolizes opening the door of learning or unlocking learning. This always brings a smile to the face of the student standing across my desk.

Skeleton keys hold a certain fascination. (Jim carried one in his pants pocket as a young boy for many years.) Skeleton keys are mysterious. We wonder what treasure or secrets the key could possibly help us discover. A skeleton key (also a passkey) is special because it can open numerous locks. This, of course, only adds to their allure and intrigue. While some believe that a skeleton key is so named because its top resembles a skull, the name signals that the key is stripped down to its most basic parts.

Skeleton keys, therefore, are simple, yet highly effective tools, which also makes them powerful symbols. After all, we say that our true love holds “the key to our heart.” Nothing could be greater than having one essential key to unlock one special someone’s heart.  I am sure that is why jewelry designers love to use skeleton keys in their pieces. And, then there are people who are presented with the “key to the city” as a symbolic gesture of leadership, friendship, and goodwill.

Imagine my surprise this week when I learned that my dear friend, California artist and painter Deborah Martin, has a painting in the Circle of Truth exhibit at the New Museum of Los Gatos opening tonight. The oil on canvas entitled The Key (2012)  is a hauntingly beautiful portrait of a skeleton key poised in a door lock. An excerpt from her artist’s statement is as follows:

Skeleton keys represent talismans that can get one through a time of change. The skeleton key or passkey is a powerful symbol as this key can open more than one lock.
The key placed in the door is a symbol of hope for the future and freedom of choice to move forward and appreciate the spirit of life.

Now I will have a different response when students ask me about the skeleton key on my desk. I can confidently affirm that the key is a symbol for the entire student body, our hope for the future, especially as Kent School begins its journey into its next half century.

If you find an antique skeleton key you are not using anymore, I will gladly take it off your hands. Don’t tell Jim, but I plan to start a new collection!

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.

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