A hint of snow and Machiavelli
I sit looking out over the last of the flaming leaves of a small maple. I am reminded of Machiavelli closing off his day. After ministering to his land, seeing to tasks, feeding his birds, he would come in at evening, take off his clothes spotted with mud, dress in regal and courtly garments, and go into his study to commune with his books. The day dawned windy, cold, and with a hint of snow in the misty air. Several students asked how I liked the day, and now, though it is only four in the afternoon, the campus is all but deserted. I would like to imagine that most students are inside by a cozy fire, reading.
I began college as a plebe, with a beanie, and was initiated into the spirit of the place with the rest of the freshmen by being awakened one morning and hauled off to the darkened handball courts in the basement of the gym, where we were pep-talked to about being ``Johnnies.''
I must admit that the next morning, walking to my first classes, I felt the spirit of the place in the quad and along the corridors.
In the classroom when a professor got excited, as they do those first days when they are trying to sell a new listener an old product, I tried to see where that excitement came from. I wanted to stand where that word or phrase or sentence stood and became flesh. ``When the sun rises, it rises in the poem,'' says William Carlos Williams in ``Paterson,'' ``and when it sets darkness comes down/and the poem is dark'' (Book Three, I).
In the dorms when we sat around, we would drop, like names, book titles we had read and phrases from our readings. There was a status in having read certain books and in using passages and ideas from books as a reference point.
I started teaching with reading as a point of reference, not for status, but for a common starting place of exchange. When it began to dawn on me that even the Bible was no longer a common reference point, I dropped my references. If students weren't reading, maybe they were thinking.
My assignments and dicusssions in those early years changed from Brooks and Warren-like close reading of stories, plays, and poems, to general considerations about overall impressions of implications and suggestions of ideas as students read assigned material. Thinking in broad, whole terms. Personally relevant response.
After almost 20 years of teaching, I have not only learned not to ask what they've read, I have begun to try to teach my students to read again.
I remember Prof. Horning at the end of the Greek section of the Greek and Roman history course he taught so many of us. Standing as vividly as the small maple stands outside my window, and as the small tree closes off a season, closing off the Greeks as they closed off Socrates, he stood in front of us this once a year in his black professional robes, as Socrates reading Plato's ``Apology.'' And when he reached that farewell, his voice almost an inaudible, broken whisper, his tiny blue eyes encircled by
reddening rims, as though the hemlock were in his hand, we felt him saying: The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways -- I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows. He closed the book without a sound. He was too moved to say another word. The class was over, and we could hear our own breathing.
In my classes these days we read aloud, often. We will share even a paragraph by passing it around, by grabbing at a sentence as it comes by. Learning to read aloud is learning to read in the presence of words.
Back when as a student I was trying to teach myself to speed up my reading, I tried to quit pronouncing the words in my head. That, I was told, was my obstacle. Prof. Humphrey, with whom I talked more often after class than in class, told me he had learned to speed read and had raised his words by the thousands per minute. And he had quit pronouncing words in his head. But then, he said, the funny thing was that as he lost the taste of words, he lost the enjoyment for reading. He read less, until he wen t back to his old habits. A good sentence has to be tasted, he said.
Maybe when our students have learned once more to read in the old way, they will feel the stir of words and of the sound of words. Maybe then we will think again. Then somewhere, at the closing of the day some quiet one will shower and dress up in finery to approach and commune again with his books.
Down in front of the gym there is a handful of practicing cheerleaders. Nothing they try -- the typical turns, handstands, clasps, claps, and cartwheels -- shouts as brilliant as the small maple closing off a season outside my window.