For most of my life September has been a month of beginnings, through years as a student and through 40 years of teaching. This year it was doubly so. Last Thursday 13 freshmen walked into their first college class, and I followed them into my first day of a new semester. September is as always "the spinning place," and the magic still worked for me as it has through each of those 40 years.
I have forgotten how a jumpy freshman feels as he faces his first college prof. The taut smiles, the tightly folded hands, the neat piles of books all argued to much unease. Their faces of course wore "undergraduate cool," but had I walked in and loudly said "boo" they would have all hit the ceiling. Even after so many years of teaching, I spent the 20 minutes before class galumphing around my office like a caged panda. They would never believe it, but I was as jumpy as they were.
To settle in, there's nothing like getting to work, and so we started in the modern idiom, contemporary, American and sharp. The poem was "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright. It's worth quoting in full.
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long
beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the
blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman
of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed
to go home.
Their women cluck like starved
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beau- tiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each
The first wrestle is with the title and the beginning stanza; what kind of a town is Martins Ferry? A boy from Nebraska gets it right, grins as he describes its main street while New Yorkers listen with their mouths open. A girl from Westchester County is puzzled by the ethnic references, not sure they're quite "right." "Dreaming of heroes" gets to all of them, and you can watch the echoes start down their imaginations as they suddenly realize how many roads 12 lines can open up.
On the second stanza, the women are more at ease than the men, sharp, gentle and with no fear of a big word like "love." When we come to the last stanza, they let the men take the lead, and one from Great Falls acknowl-edges he has played football, has felt like this and knows what the poet is saying. "Suicidally" stops them, but they move quickly to tame the horses in "gallop terribly."
We worked slowly, carefully; me prodding for alternatives and ambiguities, they wrestling not only with the text but with the undergraduate need to read the prof's mind. I had four other poems lined up, just like a novice teacher, far more than the hour could carry. And indeed, it ended with us still poking at James Wright.
One freshman class, one poem, one hour; do they matter? The answer to that is, of course, yes, they matter hugely. Behind James Wright lie all the centuries he stands on, the realm of poetry into which I will try and lead them, through which I want to help them dream. Literature is not time bound, and you can start anywhere. I hope before the term is out I can show them the beauty of words, help them know that "imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown." I hope, too, to get them beyond the easy mockery of "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling" into the calmer waters where images "grow to something of great constancy."
What is the magic that keeps teachers at it in our forties or sixties, that year after year lends to each September a sharp sense of a brand-new world. We really have three ties to our work. The first, the lonely one, is scholarship, to probe at getting something right, so that at least for a few decades no one else has to worry it. The second is teaching itself, watching young people grow into understanding, into new risks and deeper grasp. And finally, we faculty do this together. In quiet conspiracy, we serve the making of citizens, and that pulls also into the oneness of a good college -- "something of great constancy" indeed.
Washington at its golden best, on a clear and almost crisp fall day, makes it easy to forget the grim slogging and dark classrooms of February. But this is September. Let February take care of itself when it comes. It's good to begin again.
Father Healy is president of Georgetown University.