Finding the warming light
She comes, like Sandburg's fog, on little cat feet, her voice a purr, everything about her tentative, whispered, frail. She smiles with gentle resignation, even when the news is bad: ''My husband, he lost his job so I have to get a job, you know?'' The following week, the disasters continue: ''I am sorry, professor, I miss your class again which I like very much but I must go to be with my daughter. I have her now with a friend. They send her home from school because she falls down the stairs and hurts herself so I must be there.'' She smiles still, seems smaller than she is, younger than she is, almost operatic-unreal.
In class she finds redeeming things to say about the saddest of lines, the most cynical of dispositions. She is taking my class because she likes me, she says. I could as easily be teaching quantum physics, as much in her realm, it would seem, as the English Romantic poets. She is from Puerto Rico.
''Professor,'' she says, cool fingers fearfully outstretched toward my arm, ''I would like to speak with you about Wordsworth. May I see you later if I will not be trouble? I will stay only a little while. Is this all right?'' I tell her to come by and see me in fifteen minutes. She is relieved.
Thirty minutes later I slide out backward on my swivel chair into the hall to look for her and almost knock her over. She's been standing quietly outside my door for fifteen minutes, because I ''looked busy,'' and she didn't want to bother me. She wonders now whether it's ''too late'' and offers to go home. But I expansively settle her into another swivel chair she'll never move and gently coax her on.
She's been thinking about ''The Intimations Ode,'' she says, a class assignment, and ''wants to make sure about a few things'' because she ''has to, you know, have a good grade''; she ''wants to be a teacher.''
I nod, a cue for her to say something and she does: ''Well, you see, professor, it is a very great poem I think and it says many important things. It is, you know, about Life!'' She beams, folds her hands in confidence and waits. It's the most she's said the whole semester, the most she's volunteered.
I wait for more, but more is not forthcoming, so I coax her on. ''Well, professor,'' she sighs, still smiling, but wanly now, ''that's what I want to see you about. It's a very beautiful poem, but for me is difficult.''
I agree and urge her to a general appreciation: Is Wordsworth finally happy or sad? A legitimate enough fishing-expedition question for anyone but Hilda. ''Oh, professor, he is happy. You know, it is a poem about how to be happy. He no longer has that gleam, you know, but he will be happy like the flower.'' As far as Hilda is concerned, Wordsworth's got nothing to worry about.
I wonder to myself what she will make of Coleridge's ''Dejection, An Ode,'' of Byron's theatrical posturings, of Keats's sensual resignations. I know she will forgive the Ancient Mariner everything, before the necessary canto. As I examine her paper I realize she has managed to reduce ''The Intimations Ode'' to something sounding like a message in a fortune cookie. And then there is her ''Eengleesh,'' which I correct with the sense of Sisyphus, rolling over syntax till the end of time. Still, I remember, her heart is in the right place and if her head is not, I am reminded that Wordsworth would probably approve the watchful heart that comes before ''the murdering intellect.'' Hilda is not without hope. Writing well, we know, has a lot to do with habit, and Hilda's life is punctuated by disasters she cannot control.
And yet there is the problem: she wants a grade that's good; I want to give a grade that's fair. Between our two desires there is a world of difference. Specifically, between pass and fail. Much against my principles of not violating integrity of grades, of not confusing psychology and academic judgment, of not rewarding effort in lieu of performance, I decide to give Hilda a passing grade for the paper. It is my hope for her and for the easing of my conscience that encouragement (with critical marginal comments) will help her persevere and perhaps, in the long run, prevail. The next day in class I receive my answer.
Hilda gets her paper back and looks disappointed. I feel her gaze, her hurt, her questioning. But I direct the class to the day's discussion, Coleridge's ''Dejection.'' And lo! here comes Hilda to object to the Sage of Highgate. ''Leesten, I want to say this about him,'' she says, forcefully, the hurt turning into anger, ''he says his 'shaping spirit of Imagination is over,' but look at this poem. It is, you know, shaped beautifully.'' Hilda stares hard at me, pleased. It's the first time she's moved from content to talk of form, the first time I've seen heart and head working together.
After class she stops me, polite, soft, but less tentative. ''Professor, may I come see you? I would like to discuss this paper.'' It's not the grade she wants to argue, she says, but the interpretation of the poem. And I rest a little bit easier, knowing that most probably I will give Hilda a C at the end of the term, a passing grade, an average grade, but not a giveaway for psychological reasons. It will be a grade that may, in the end, goad Hilda to do more. I also think of a remark attributed to the Spanish philosopher Unamuno, who, when told of Goethe's dying remarks, calling for more light, replied, ''More light? We have light enough. What the world needs more of, is warmth.''
With all her demonstrated need for more light, I conclude it would not be such a loss for the urban high schools if Hilda were to become a teacher. Where others in the class find only romantic agony, Hilda finds joy.