Tomorrow, I leave bright and early for Vermont which explains why I’m posting this today. For the past thirteen years, I’ve taught at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. I often teach a workshop in the novel, and when I do, I ask my participants to read The Great Gatsby. That novel gives us a chance to talk about matters of characterization, structure, point of view, detail, and language. It also gives me a chance to revisit one of my favorite novels. Our narrator, Nick Carraway, spends a summer and early autumn in the company of careless people, and though the book focuses on Gatsby’s attempt to reclaim Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life, it also has a good deal to say about wealth, corruption, the Midwest, and the East. At the end of the book, the East is haunted for Nick, and he makes the decision to go back to the Midwest: “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air, and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.”
My trip to Vermont always signals the end of summer. The cool mornings and the shortening days remind me that we’re making the turn toward autumn. I think of Gatsby at the end of the book telling his servant not to drain the pool. “You know, old sport,” Gatsby says to Nick, “I’ve never used that pool all summer?” I think of Gatsby floating on his air mattress, and a gust of wind, and the yellowing leaves, and the ripples in the water, and all he doesn’t know about what’s coming: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Autumn has always been a melancholic time for me: “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.” At the end of summer, when I was a small boy, my mother often took me with her when she went to the grade school where she taught to prepare her classroom. I remember the smells of floor wax, paste, pencil shavings, construction paper. I remember the marking pencils my mother used to correct her students’ lessons, writing not with a glaring red but with a rose blush, for her method was always one of kindness and encouragement rather than punishment. In the end, her gentle nature may have been what kept her from having her contract renewed, but that’s no matter. I hope her spirit knows that I always remember her tender nature, and I wonder how many of her former students might do the same. She modeled a life for me—one filled with books and education—and I followed her path.
My life has been that of a teacher. I’ll spend this week practicing that craft, and then, in two weeks, I’ll start another semester of teaching at Ohio State University. Like this, summer turns into autumn, and our lives cycle through the seasons. I miss those who have gone on before me, particularly my mother. Each autumn, when I step into a classroom, I think of her and everything she gave her students over her thirty-eight years of teaching: “Gatsby believed in the green light [at the end of Daisy’s dock], the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And one fine morning—”
So here’s to that time between seasons where we simultaneously mourn the past and look forward to the future—that bittersweet time of eternal hope.