Autumn Semester classes begin this week here at Ohio State University. Even after thirty-four years of teaching, this time of the year always lifts me up when I think of the time we’ll spend, my students and I, sitting around a table talking the talk about writing and literature.
At the start of each school year, I recall the story that the then Chair of the English Department at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln told when I was a Ph.D. student there. The night before classes were to begin, he came across a young man in Andrews Hall, where the English Department is housed, looking into an empty classroom. When the chair asked if he could help him with something, the young man said, “I’m just looking at the room where I’m going to have my composition class.” He said this with a sense of wonder and awe.
For all my years of teaching, this is the student, a young man I never had the good fortune to meet, that I’ve held in my mind, particularly at those times when the stresses of the academic life bear down on me, or the times when my students disappoint me, or the times when I disappoint them. This young man on the verge of his college life, standing in the doorway of an empty classroom, feeling the privilege of the opportunities that would soon be his.
Because of him, I try my best to be on top of my game at all times; I try to rise up and meet his expectations.
But this year, I’m saddened by reports of fraternity houses on college campuses—or here in Columbus, a house near fraternity row—with bed sheets hanging outside upon which are written horribly misogynistic messages: DADS, WE’LL TAKE IT FROM HERE and DAUGHTER DAYCARE.
I cringe. I react with anger. I feel the violation of women. I feel the desecration of what I’ve always considered a sacred place, the university rooms where I’ve sat these thirty-four years engaged in the privilege of teaching and learning. I may never meet the young men who hung those signs, but when I read them, it’s as if their authors have stepped into my writing workshops and tried to make less of what we do there.
That’s why it’s especially important this year that I recall the story of that young man in awe of the room where he’s about to take a composition class. It’s important that I recall his respect, his understanding that not everyone gets this opportunity, his determination to open himself to learning. It’s that young man I teach toward while at the same time hoping that something I’ll say will make a difference in the lives of those, like the frat boys, who are so obviously on the wrong path. The study of writing and literature requires a good degree of empathy. Teaching well and living well require the same. Our classroom doors will soon be open. All are welcome. What would I say to those frat boys? “Come inside and learn.”