I am a high school teacher. Our seniors this year are getting kind-of a raw deal. Possibly no prom, and the cancellation of graduation is a shocking likelihood too. I don’t actually remember all that much about my senior year of high school, as I had transplanted from the system where I grew up into a sizeable public school district that felt like visiting another planet. I do, however, remember a LOT about my senior year of college.
One of those memories involves senior oral comprehensive exams.
Just the idea was terrifying. I was going to be in a room for an hour, facing a panel of professors from my department and representatives from other fields, subject to questions I could not possibly predict, spanning basically anything and everything from all my years as an undergraduate.
My college was a small one. Classes for certain majors had to be offered bi-annually, so it turned out that as an English major, I took Classicism, Romanticism, and Modernism all before sitting for Intro Lit. I had my introductory class as a senior, and in fact, had it the same semester as my comprehensive exams.
Introduction to Literature was a pivotal moment for me as a teacher. What should have felt like an easy, almost blow-off class, turned out to be something I enjoyed immensely! I was the only English major in the very-full room, and I had class with most of the university’s soccer team. To say they were dis-interested and made my favorite professor work HARD would be an understatement!
One of our assignments was to write a paper comparing the work and style of two major poets. I was carrying 21 hours that semester, which was insane, and I procrastinated. The night before it was due, I stayed up late at my kitchen table, sitting down with my anthologies and my word processor to begin drafting it about 1:30 in the morning. My plan was to compare the writing of William Carlos William to that of Emily Dickinson. We were also supposed to present our papers in the next session- about nine hours later.
I should pause here and explain: In the previous class, we had talked about hidden layers of meaning in Dickinson’s poetry. It was very late, and I was very tired.
I flipped through the collections, uninspired.
Then I read a poem by Robert Frost. I think it may have been “Birches” or “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and had a thought.
It was a strange thought.
It was a random, wild thought.
It was a thing I could not un-think or un-see.
Suddenly, I found myself pouring out that multiple-page paper with no effort whatsoever.
Basically, I said that I believed I could prove that like Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost had embedded additional layers of meaning in his poetry through the use of code words. I thought that perhaps trees (and sometimes groups of trees or nature) represented women.
I blushed with the fierceness of a thousand sunburns while I made the presentation, explaining my idea and then reading a few select passages:
Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
I immediately had the full attention of the back row of the class. Naughty poetry? They were intrigued.
Then I read the opening lines of “After-Apple Picking” and the class turned into something I had never before experienced.
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off…
Suddenly, the room which had collectively napped through presentations was abuzz, whispering poetry and turning pages, stifling laughter.
It was the first time I felt like a teacher with an engaged class. I remember how electrifying it was. I was no longer tired!
My presentation ended, and after class, I begged the professor NOT to tell the rest of the department. I could not imagine the horror of sitting in a room full of elderly men discussing the matter without imminent death by embarrassment occurring.
He made no promises.
A few weeks later, he granted me a huge favor. While I sat in front of a panel of intimidating brilliance, he told them my secret.
My face turned scarlet.
The stately, proper head of the department broke the ice. He quoted a line that was utterly scandalous through that new lens.
I barely fielded another question for the rest of the hour-long session.
My professors sat and debated the idea and quoted Frost to one another, delighted and cackling like the soccer team had.
Mortification was a very real thing, but so was pride. It was a new idea to them, one that seemed plausible and worthy of exploration.
I remember that about my senior year. An unfulfilled “promise” (that was never actually made) brought me an awesome experience I will never forget.
I can only hope the current high school seniors will be able to walk away with an equally fond thing to look back upon and cherish, particularly in a year that feels like many unspoken yet broken promises.