Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Morning Thanks--a good day

First, the bad news. Twice in the opening week of classes the English Department hosted gatherings meant to acquaint students--our students, those legendary English majors Garrison Keillor has made into a genre of their own--with who we were and what they are. Twice, only one student showed up. I hope the provost doesn't read this or he'll yank a position. We didn't do well for majors this year, and it's not a hiccup. The trajectory in the last few years is as obvious as it is ominous.

And then there's this. We offered a really good lit conference to our students--almost a free pass to St. Paul for a day-long confab that includes Billy Collins, former poet laureate and maybe America's most well-known poet. One day. Saturday. We pay transportation and might even throw in a meal or two. "We'll have a great time"--that's what I wrote in an e-mail, "but you've got to sign up soon 'cause you've got to register."

No takers. No not one. Not one student wants to come along.

Up on the wall of my office, my grandfather's high school diploma hangs, a massive thing, the size of a small flag, circa 1898, Parkersburg, Iowa. Pencilled into it is a record of how much time he spent in the classes he took along the way, as in "Mental Arithmatic--36 wks."

Half of what's listed, a standard classical education, doesn't exist today: "Cicero--18 wks, Latin Grammer--36 wks." I keep that diploma up there to honor my grandfather, and to remind me that, in education as in life, all things must pass. Perhaps the golden age of English majors is behind us.

Pardon me while I reach for the Kleenex.

If I were in engineering or pre-med, I suppose I'd be energized by the importance of preparing my students for what they were going to do for the rest of their lives, to prepare them for admission to an honorable job, to make sure they were ready for what they're going to face once they get to the office or lab.

But I teach in the humanities, where there are no labs. I teach stories and poems that shape lives in a fashion that starts to feel almost religious--spiritual surely. I teach courses in which my real success can't be measured all that easily because most likely I'll never see it. Much of my teaching concerns itself not with how to do something, but how to be. My success happens when all of a kid decides the world is too much with him, that sorrows come not as spies but in batallions, that sometimes we all wish we could return to open fields and games with our little sisters. I win when my students read the psalms and find themselves right there in the middle of King David's grief and wonder and exultation. I teach something called "felt life," a commodity you can't buy or sell.

Oh, we'll always be needed as technicians, making sure the students know the difference between commas and semi-colons; even in the finest crystal ball there'll always be English teachers. I teach my students how to write, after all. That's one precious commodity.

Anyway, despite all that, despite the darkness outside my window this morning, yesterday I taught three classes and they all went very, very well. Things look good for me in the classroom this semester. Students are responsive and energized, even in the big required class, not an English major in sight.

But despite the darkness, despite the omninous future, hope flings itself out toward the start of another day.

Here's this morning's joy: I'm only starting out and I could be wrong, failure is always a possibility; but the truth is that by any measure I had a good day, a very good day, and for that, good Lord, this dark early morning, I'm thankful.

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