Splashing in the Distance

It’s come to this. They are assigning me to mentor new faculty. What in the world can they possibly be thinking? I am beginning my 18th year and feel completely befuddled, hapless and unprepared. Good heavens, I met my mentee last Tuesday and I feel he should be mentoring me. He has a hundred wonderful ideas and lots of eagerness to get started. He will be fine. I can’t think what I can possibly tell him about teaching or academic life or anything for that matter.

I remember my first semester. Egad, what a disaster. I was so anxious to make an impression and volunteered for everything. At my first committee meeting I volunteered to be recording secretary. Then two students sought me out to be an advisor to their campus club. Of course I said yes. The professor I replaced had been the advisor to a student poetry club and these two students were the sole remaining members. One was a lanky guy with pale skin and red stringy hair. The other was young woman. I can’t recall what she looked like but she was short and forever in an olive drab military fatigue jacket.

The first thing they asked was whether I was going to read Poe’s The Raven in a graveyard at Halloween. Apparently the professor I replaced did this every year. It was his signature event. I must have said something, but I don’t remember ever agreeing to read The Raven in a cemetery. Anyway, we met each Friday at noon (hence the club's name: The Friday Noon Club), but the two students never brought any poems to discuss or read. The only thing they cared about was getting money from the student government to hold a party.

Weeks passed and by the end of October they had secured a few hundred dollars for their party. They decorated a room on the third floor of Old Main, which at that time was a rather spooky, un-refurbished building. They festooned the room with black and orange streamers and some kind of chemically-produced spider webs. They also bought lots of gooey treats and made hot cider. Halloween night came. It was a Friday as I recall. And there I was with these two students, alone on the third floor of this decrepit building, surrounded by dishes of candy corn and tins of muffins decorated to look like jack-o-lanterns.

It so happened that this night coincided with one of the worst ice storms in years. Outside, the conditions were getting worse and worse. By 6:30 it was clear to me that we needed to cancel, but the students begged me to wait until seven. So we sat waiting. About ten minutes to the hour I heard the creak of footsteps coming up the stairs and thought, “What kind of idiot would come out on a night like this to this cockamamie party?” A few seconds later, the college’s president and his wife appeared in the doorway. The students sprang to furnish them with muffins and cider. Then we all sat down on metal folding chairs.

The young woman (the one in the fatigue jacket) suddenly said something about reading her poem, and I am thinking, “Poem? You have never mentioned poetry in the eight weeks I’ve known you.” Nevertheless, she begins to read her poem, which graphically depicts the less sanitary parts of her anatomy. And when she finishes, the young man begins his opus, a love poem to Satan. I am sitting there not daring to look at the president and his wife. When the young woman said she wanted to read another poem, I said, “No, I think it’s time that I should read The Raven." (The two students had a copy, of course.) I read it as slowly as possible. Then the president and his wife graciously thanked us and left. I helped the students load trays uneaten muffins into their cars and drove home alone on treacherous streets, convinced my brilliant career was over.

A few weeks later I met the president while crossing campus. This was out in the open and there was nowhere that I could slink away in shame. He just came up to me with a broad grin and said, “I want to thank you for the other evening. The Raven is one of my wife’s favorite poems.” As he strode off, I couldn’t help thinking that he was either a very gracious man or a complete boob. Well, that was 18 years ago, a lifetime really.

It’s funny, but suddenly I recall an old image from E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” which was commonly included in freshmen English readers many years ago. I know I was assigned to read it when I began college. The only thing I recall, however, is the image of someone struggling to pull on wet, icy swim trunks as children happily splashed in the distance. It was a powerful image: the intimation of mortality in the wet trunks hugging the groin and the playful call of children's voices. For me, though, it’s not nearly as powerful as the memory of jack-o-lanterns grinning their frosted grins from the tops of sugary, uneaten muffins.

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