Not long ago, my college English department hosted a reunion night at which faculty and students gathered for some catching-up. Added to the predictable embarrassments on both sides - "What's your name again?" "Don't you remember me?" - were the heartening, surprising, sometimes disturbing recollections of my courses. "Your class was the best!" Or, "Because of you, I'm still listening to Bluegrass."
But then, "Do you remember the time you told us Chaucer wasn't really that funny?" Well, no, I don't remember saying that, especially since I think Chaucer is one of the funniest writers ever. "Do you still have that Tristan and Isolde necklace?" Yes, I do. In fact, I'm wearing it tonight - not that I remember calling attention to it. I wonder if they remember reading Gottfried von Strassburg.
Anyone who has spent any time teaching knows how random, fragmented, and painfully incorrect students' perceptions can be, the classroom at times like one of those gossip games in which a message started at one end of the room is delivered, wildly altered, at the other. Many of us have met that "youth in Asia" or "Richard Stans" - to whom the republic is pledged.
This slipperiness is one of the reasons teachers become so repetitive, so overexplicit in their struggle for clarification, for a sign the message has been received. I often joke with my students about switching my job for one at Baskin-Robbins, because there I could hand my customers what we all agree is an ice cream and watch them devour it before my eyes.
I do get hints that something I was trying to teach actually was learned: copies of articles published by students from my writing workshops, e-mails about appointments to English departments, invitations to master's or doctoral graduations, thank-yous from students with jobs in publishing, editing, newspaper reporting; Christmas cards proclaiming continued devotion to Sam Johnson, Virginia Woolf, E.B. White.
My favorite is a letter from a biology major who landed, with no chance for escape, in my English Lit. survey: "I'm not sure you'll remember me, but I'm the student who brought in pictures of lice when we did Burns's 'To a Louse.' I thought I was going to flunk, not graduate, not get a job, and live in a cardboard box, but I actually got to enjoy this course.... Now I'm getting my masters in biotechnology, but I want you to know that I found a great website that has hundreds of full-text poems, lyrics, ballads, sonnets ... there I found a great piece by Keats.... I have developed a love for literature. Thanks for your patience, dedication, and enthusiasm."
The vision of this student devoting his lunch hour to "Lamia" is enough to fuel many more years of patience, dedication, and enthusiasm.
A former student recently requested a vaguely remembered quotation he wanted for a speech. His only clue was "savage torpor." I mailed back Wordsworth's line, "For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor." I hoped he'd make good use of its lingering truth.
A student of 20 years ago, now an established businessman and father of three, e-mailed that reading Arthurian literature had prepared him for understanding human nature more than any other course ("too many Mordreds").
These are the delightful acknowledgments.
But from the many hundreds of students I have taught over the past 30 years, the trumpets are mostly muffled. I often wonder what my Ed. majors are teaching of Dido, Don Quixote, or Guenevere. Do my "Intro Poetry" students still attend readings? Are they still struggling with iambic pentameter or with hearing the accents in their own names? Are the essay students keeping up with the latest prose? Did those multitudes of freshmen ever get their "they're, their, there's" straight? Did the teacher-test candidates finally attach their pronoun referents to their nouns?
This curiosity is without blame. Their silence is as it should be. A teacher's task is to give freely, constantly - one of the reasons that love for the subject, year after year, is crucial. I've done my job if students take my messages, accurate or not, make them their own, and proceed without me.
As Wordsworth said in yet another moment of wisdom, "...What we have loved /Others will love, and we will teach them how."
I can't help thinking of Billy Collins's poem, "Schoolsville," in which a veteran teacher imagines an entire town populated only by himself and his former students. I, too, sometimes find myself thinking of my students as contemporaries - my Classics classes of the '70s as friends with my '04 poets, my earliest writing students as readers in my current nonfiction workshop. I conjure up decades of Arthurians deliberating at one grand Round Table.
I enjoy these unique combinations. But the real pleasure is knowing that so many students are out there - most, I hope, a little more able to appreciate the turn of a phrase - and a little more in love with what I have loved.