Along about this time every year, I notice a temporary uplift, a boost in my spirits.
Almost anything can trigger it: a slight change in the color of the sunlight, the noticeable yellowing of foliage, perhaps a cool snap in the air, the smell of leaves burning, or the laughter of young men and women on a sidewalk. I first noticed this in the Fall semester of 1963 when, at the age of 22, I was a beginning college instructor at Eastern Kentucky State College in Richmond, Kentucky.
I remember climbing the old worn steps to my first class on the very top floor of old Roark Hall; the top floor was really a finished attic under a gable with only one small classroom. I was a little nervous and very excited to be beginning my career as a part of the best system of higher education in the best country in the world, the United States. As I came to the intermediate landing on the stairs and before I started up again, I glanced out the window by the stairs and saw the yellowing leaves of a tree below and some students passing on the sidewalk. I caught a brief glimpse of my own blurred reflection in the glass and thought, damn, I'm finally a college teacher. After three years of pork and beans and other sorts of even worse deprivation I'd put my little family through, I had reached a goal. It was great, although not quite as I had imagined.
But, my expectations were high that day, as I opened the door and entered. The classroom was cramped and the class itself was small, about 12-15 students, if my memory can be trusted. The students were quiet, not a good sign as I later learned (usually that meant not much discussion, which was always a killer for me since my method depended on that). It was a Composition II class which meant it was out of sequence and which explained the small number of students present. I don't remember much about how I, or that specific class. or any of the other four (2 other Comps, and 2 World Lits) I taught that semester performed, but I think we all must have done okay.
As the years passed, I always seemed to get that same feeling, either before the semester began, or sometimes a week or two after classes started.
I suppose the feeling I sensed that day as I climbed the stairs has got something to do with "youth," promise, hope (not the political kind, but the personal kind). And there's joy there too. I can't fully explain it. But it's a good thing. It's a bit fanciful I know, but I like to think this feeling and being around a new crop of young people every year helped keep me mentally young over the years.
Of course, neither the hope nor the promise was ever fully
realized. We are, after all, human, and the goals we set, the aspirations we reach for are usually compromised by our imperfections and flaws. Or, if we do achieve something, it turns out to be full of contradictions and complications we never expected.
And in this context, I'm not just talking about the students I taught, but myself as well. And yet, I'm proud to say, that uplift, that faith, if you will, that I began each academic year with, never dissolved into cynicism. Like the eternal seasons, it came around every autumn, as regular as that first bracing cool snap. I eventually came to expect it and to count on its recurrence.
I retired in 2003 so I don't teach any more. And I rarely go back on the campus where I ended my career.
But funny thing. I still get that feeling. And I'm glad that I do.
Note: That's really a pic of the Roark Building, restored in 1964. My office was in back and down on the basement level in 1963, one of the perks of being a freshman, just out of grad school instructor. There were exposed and noisy pipes along the ceiling and up and down the walls, but it felt like an executive suite to me. I remember going down there and sitting at my desk after I heard the word from students that JFK was shot. I thought the whole world might fall apart. It didn't, but things certainly changed.
The other pic is also from Eastern. It's a shot of the infamous "ravine" where students still lounge between classes and sometimes make out on the grass. The strange looking structure in the pic is an outdoor theater; it was there in 1963 as well, and in good weather I sometimes sat out there and ate a sandwich at lunch.