APRIL 2008 – NO. 23
In praise of the dark months
In the dark months of January and February, our students get sick. In the middle of February, the class discusses an essay about glum and sullen academics in four small liberal arts Midwestern universities just like ours. Is it really like this for college professors? one student asks. Why can't they take joy in their students?
We move on to the essay about the undertaker and his funeral home when we see one of our own, the boy near the wall, sliding down in his chair, passed out. We run and catch him before he hits his head on the desk or floor. We use our cell phones to call 911. As we wait for help to come, we rest his head in our lap and dab cold water on his white face. We wait for his eyes to open. We search for his faint pulse and say over and over You're OK, You're OK. We stay with him, holding his glasses and his hands, willing him back to wellness as the men load him into the ambulance. The snow begins to fall again as we go back inside.
In the dark months we stay close together and inside so much and for so long, we look out windows and stare up at the sunless grey Indiana sky. The faculty in our university gets crabby. We grow tired of one another and when we meet for departmental or curricular meetings, we can guess what the other will suggest or complain about. We gripe. We say what we really want to be teaching, what we should be teaching. We should be teaching our subject, our expertise. We should be teaching what we had been taught to teach in graduate school. If we were teaching what we wanted to teach everything would be better. Faculty morale would improve and so would faculty scholarship and faculty teaching. We rarely discuss students in these meetings.
In the dark months we return home from work in the dark. We spend weekends recovering. We cook stews with beans and barley and put lots of things in crock pots. We grade papers. We watch movies. We read long novels. We lift weights and do indoor exercises to improve our balance. We build fires and stare into them, laughing as we talk about building cities made of marshmallows or where we might go in July.
When it snows in the dark months of January and February, we pray for school closings and we sled down our hills until our toes can't stand it.
We bundle up in layers to view the lunar eclipse and we understand completely how and why primitive tribes were once awed and terrified by the cold shadow darkening the moon's surface like some planetary grim reaper.
The boy who fainted comes back to class and we all come together again on Monday and eat raw vegetables and bread. We talk of the importance of eating well and we read from Leonardo da Vinci's list of ways to stay healthy. Beware of anger and avoid grievous moods, he wrote. Rest your head and keep your mind cheerful. Let your wine be mixed with water, take a little at a time, not between meals and not on an empty stomach. How are we supposed to get drunk? one student jokes. The boy who fainted laughs. His color is back, but we still remember him, an older 21, his face white, sliding down his chair as we discussed academia and death. We replay that day over and over in our minds: there he was, one of our own, falling before us. Only the day before, in a neighboring Midwestern state, some other student had killed five students and himself in a classroom. It had been the second such shooting that month.
We read Gerard Manly Hopkins and we talk about unlikely things to praise. Dappled things like brinded cows, rose-moles, trout, finches' wings, and landscapes plotted, pieced, fallow and ploughed. We read the last few lines of "Pied Beauty" again:
All things counter, original, spare, strange,
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
We take out paper and pens. We write our own odes in prose and in poetry, our choice. We make lists. We are grateful, praising everything as though it were spring.
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