The professor is just finishing his lunch. On the pullout shelf of his desk nearest his study window stand honey, yogurt, and dark bread. On the shelf just above his desk a bronze bust of Beethoven frowns down, as if puzzling over the Ninth -- or perhaps just hungry.
Above, beside, and all around Beethoven are books. Wall to wall. Extending to the ceiling. Shakespeare. The Bible. An old edition of Sir Walter Scott. Lots and lots of Milton.
''Why do you thinkm you want to be an English major?'' the professor asks the prospective student.
The parents of the prospective student find everything somehow reassuring. The professor's gentle voice. The way he tilts back in his chair. This little universe of enlightenment -- maybe nine by twelve -- overlooking a street of red-brick buildings facing, on the other side, white clapboard houses.
One travels downm to Maine from Massachusetts. On the way down to Maine this April morning the prospective student had read Francoise Sagan aloud to the parents, against a background of rock on the car radio. The route was the same road taken to vacation summers before. It struck the journeyers as a serene world, this country dotted with old European names: Mexico, Paris, Norway. The apple trees were bare now, and the cornfields full of dead stalks, but the promise of harvest remained in the mind's eye.
You could smell the pine trees through the windows. White birches bordered a lake. Then, coming around a sudden turn or descending a hill, still another white church spire kept coming into view.
Everything seemed to testify to settled habits of life, even the out-of-shape barns with roof and frame at crazy angles, even the greenhouse sprawled like a collapsed glass tent in somebody's front yard.
The almost deserted road was shared now and then with the occasional pickup truck, driven by men in plaid jackets and baseball caps, straddling the center strip at 35 miles per hour -- always in your direction. Coming from the opposite direction log trucks headed south for the mills, crawling up grades like overburdened pachyderms.
Purple mountains stretched on the northern horizon, and a solitary horse stood motionless by the side of the road -- a painting looking at another painting.
Agrarian. What is it about the very word that comforts the parents of a prospective student -- the ex-child about to be lost?
There's nothing like being the parent of a prospective student to turn you into a shameless devotee of Norman Rockwell. One so wants this home-away-from-home to live up to the idyll of the catalog. In the pictures smiling, clear-eyed students stroll across an unlittered, grassy world where bicycles never get stolen. In the library well-groomed young heads bend over books in a communal act of respect for civilization. In cafeteria scenes you can practically taste the delicious food. Can't you?
The professor in his study listens to the prospective student explain the reasons for selecting English as a major. The prospective student does not really believe in reasons. The prospective student does not really believe in direct answers to direct questions. But the prospective student knows a required ritual when the prospective student sees one.
Afterward the professor explains in his soft voice why he chose English as his major. The pleasures of reading hang in the air like incense.
Can there really be a nuclear arms race? Can such things be happening in El Salvador and the Falkland Islands? Washington and Moscow seem as remote, as fantastic as Mars.
Here is a world of some sanity, some order, some innocence, some kindness. Is this too much for the parents of a prospective student to believe in? Is this too much for anybody to ask for?