Here, she explains why she gives an origami bookmark, and what she hopes will endure. — Susan Svrluga
In the last week of the first-year writing class I teach at George Washington University, I give each student an origami bookmark. It is a simple folded square, no bigger than the palm of your hand, the paper a photocopied page from one of my favorite novels, Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.”
Students sometimes ask, bemused: “What is this, Professor Lee?” So I turn the square over, and show them how the triangular pocket on the other side fits neatly over the corner of a page in a book. I draw their attention to the words printed on the paper, explaining that the page I’ve folded into a bookmark appears three-fifths of the way through My Antonia.
At this point the narrator, Jim Burden, is a sophomore at the University of Nebraska, where Cather herself was a student. As the chapter begins, Burden is reading Virgil’s Georgics, reflecting on a passage he’d studied in class that morning: Primus ego in patriam mecum, deducam Musas, “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.”
Burden recalls his teacher, Gaston Cleric, explaining that by patria, Latin for fatherland, Virgil was referring neither to a nation nor a province, “but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born.”
Virgil’s declaration is not intended to be self-regarding bluster—rather, it is a hope “that he might bring the Muse…to his own little ‘country’: to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’”
I try not to wait until the last week of class to spring Virgil on my students, of course.
Earlier in the semester of the class I teach, “Writing About Photojournalism,” I engage my students in a visual analysis exercise. We examine the one-dollar bill, focusing on the words that appear beneath the pyramid on the Great Seal: Novus Ordo Seclorum, “A New Order of the Ages,” words adapted from Virgil’s fourth Eclogue.
The Great Seal, made public in 1782, marks a new beginning, I tell my students: the birth of America, a new democracy whose founders sought inspiration from the classical world.
Then, by the time we reach week 15, my students are ready to think about endings.
I hand out the bookmarks I’ve made while my students and I are meeting one-on-one to discuss the final drafts of their research papers. I never tire of reciting Virgil’s words, or of seeing my students react to them. Musas, the Muse, refers to a classical goddess of inspiration, I explain, and thus to bring the Muse into your neighborhood is to make a difference in the lives of the people closest to you.
The Muses were the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory), suggesting that inspiration draws upon personal history, what Cather calls the “precious, incommunicable past.”
Once, after I’d finished speaking, a student looked at me thoughtfully, reached for a highlighter, and marked Virgil’s Latin phrase in bright yellow. Until that moment, I’d never thought that watching a student highlight a text could feel so gratifying.
One end-of-class ritual in particular made a deep impression on me when I was a student, and inspired me to create my own now that I’m a teacher.
Perhaps what a teacher says on the last day resonates because everyone in the room is in a reflective frame of mind. Nine years ago, I was a student in a summer writing workshop taught by the author Jim Shepard at the University of Nebraska, where part of “My Antonia” is set. While I was there I was constantly reminded of the novel, and it wasn’t just because I love Cather’s lyrical language so much; quotes from the text were engraved on many of the red brick buildings I saw on campus.
On the last day of class, Jim gave a short speech. “Do the work,” Jim told us, all aspiring writers. “Earn the privilege of ambition.”
Afterward, I wandered out into the heat of a Nebraska summer, my mind still fixed on what Jim had said. I found myself standing in front of a building upon which was engraved a quote from Chapter One of “My Antonia”: “There was nothing but land,” Cather wrote, describing young Jim Burden’s first glimpse of Nebraska, “Not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”
As I gazed at Cather’s words, I couldn’t help feeling as if they applied to me as well, for I was not a writer yet, but perhaps the material out of which writers are made— provided that I was willing to work, to “earn the privilege of ambition.”
I carried with me a childhood longing to write about my patria, my mother’s little neighborhood in Malaysia, her lime-washed, red-roofed house sloping down to the Malacca Straits, its shores dotted with villages where the descendants of immigrants still spoke Hokkien, and Tamil, and Portuguese, and the national language, Malay.
Years had gone by since I’d last seen the Malacca house, and yet the longing I felt to write about it had never faded.
Since Jim Shepard’s class, I’ve gone back to school to earn a degree in creative writing, and I’ve kept on writing stories about my patria. My aim is to recreate my mother’s neighborhood in fictional form, the house she grew up in now gone to make way for new development.
Maybe this is why I hand out bookmarks reminding my students to reflect on their patria—because I know that the things we cherish the most in the world can be lost if we do nothing to preserve them.
Many of my students at GW are international, from developing countries like mine, where the past is being demolished to make way for the new.
I like to think that my students will come to value the old even as they look to the future. Recently, one of my international students wrote to tell me about an English literature class she’d taken that semester. In that class she’d discovered Shakespeare’s sonnets, and was so taken with Sonnet 33 she wanted to try her hand at writing her own version, she said.
She attached a photograph to show me that she was putting into practice the advice I give all my students: to always make time for non-required reading. I wrote back to congratulate her on all that she had accomplished that semester, and closed with a quote adapted from Virgil.
In Latin, of course, I wrote:
“I shall be the first to make a difference in my neighborhood!”