At the Start of the School Year

Another school year is upon us, and, as I do each year, I recall a story that the Chair of the English Department told at the start of the year when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said that on the evening before Fall Semester classes were to begin, he came across a young man in the hallway who was looking into a classroom. The Chair, good fellow that he was, asked the young man if he could be of help. The young man, a freshman, said in a hushed voice, the sort of respectful voice we used to hear in public libraries, “Tomorrow, I’m going to have my English class in this room. I just wanted to see it.”

I can never tell this story without feeling humbled. Like many teachers, I love what I do, but, again, like many teachers, I sometimes grumble about the job. This story reminds me each year that I’m in the service of students like the young man who came into Andrews Hall to take a look at the room where he and his fellow-classmates and his instructor would engage with the written word. Granted, it’s sometimes easy to think that students like this one are the exceptions rather than the rule, but still, it makes me stop and think about what I owe those who occupy my classrooms. Someone is paying a good deal of money for each student’s education. I owe those students, their parents, spouses, the University, or whoever is putting up the cash, my very best.

What a gift I’ve been given, the opportunity to make my living doing the thing I most love. Each year at this time—I’m about to start my 33rd year of teaching—I think about a student in Nebraska, a young man I never met, someone whose name I never knew, and how he was eager, reverential, expectant. He was on the verge of his adult life. He’ll never know how much he’s meant to me over all the years that I’ve taught. Bless him and all the others who are about to walk into a classroom—students and teachers alike. Bless us for the sacred act of learning that is soon to begin.



  1. Roberta W. Coffey on August 25, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Beautiful, moving essay, Lee. And by the way, I had no idea that you’ve had 33 years teaching, although I recognized your expertise in the classroom when I witnessed and benefited from it. You look and seem much younger than those years would imply. No flattery; just the truth.


    • Lee Martin on August 25, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Thank you, Roberta. Time does tend to move on 🙂

  2. Daryl Farmer on August 25, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    This is lovely, Lee. Thanks for the timely reminder to appreciate all that the new semester promises.

    • Lee Martin on August 25, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      Thank you, Daryl. I hope you have a rich and rewarding year.

  3. Jean Roelke on August 26, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Thank you for this lovely prayer for the start of Fall semester.

    • Lee Martin on September 1, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      I hope you have a wonderful year, Jean!

  4. Carl Wooton on August 31, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Nice. Very nice. I put in fifty years in the same vineyard and can recall a number os students who showed a light being turned on in their eyes. A few have gone on to publish stories. A number over the years have asked for reading lists. One, a student from Syria in the 70s, writing in English has published two or three e-novels. Another is the author of the latest and best novel about the molestation scandal in the Catholic Church. The one whom I remember most clearly was a young woman in the late 60s in Lafayette, Louisiana. She stopped me after class one day to tell me she had to admit that at one point she had decided she couldn’t help but hate me because she overheard a conversation in which I mentioned a close friend and his family came to my house for a barbecue party. The friend was Black. The student apologized for her feelihngs and told me that reading Faulkner’s story, “That Evening Sun,” had upset her. As a young white person in Louisiana she knew about racial conflict, but she had never experienced it, had lived her white life oblivious of what went on on “the other side of town.” I thanked her and told her to keep in mind that although I assigned the reading, it was the work and her openness to it that made such a huge difference. I don’t remember her name, but I still count her experience as a reason for gratitude still. I think you know, Lee, if age and health hadn’t gotten in the way I would be starting year 52 this fall. Enjoy your teaching for as long as you can. Best.

  5. Lee Martin on September 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Carl. I know you hold dear, as do I, so many memories from the classroom.

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