Lessons from lit class (Jan. 8, 2009)

Last Thursday I awoke to the first day of my last semester of college. Usually the first day of a new semester is a breeze and, since I am taking only one class, I expected this one to be just that. I was wrong.

Usually on the first day of a new semester, I walk into the room, sit down in the last chair on the last row where I resolve to remain for the rest of the course and blatantly stare off into space while the professor rambles through a syllabus that is eerily similar to the other 80 I have received throughout my collegiate career.

Little is learned on the first day of most college classes, and I was perfectly fine sticking to the usual pattern. Fortunately, my new professor wasn’t.

From the moment he walked in the room lugging a mail basket filled to the brim with thick, scholarly papers, I knew this first day would be unlike any other. That was my first clue.

The second was the first sentence the professor spoke, one directed at a girl seated toward the front of the room. “I can’t believe you’re back,” he said in a soft, slightly menacing tone that suddenly filled me with a sense of dread I couldn’t explain.

After a little more chitchat, the professor’s hand plunged into the mail basket and retrieved some of the documents. I noticed immediately that, although his hand held a sizable amount of papers, it had barely made a dent in the mountainous pile that remained in the basket.

Slowly, he ventured around the room dropping papers in front of students. He finally arrived at my table and dropped a large pile of stapled papers on it. It landed with a sickening thud, and I stared at the biggest course syllabus I had ever seen.

My unexplainable sense of dread intensified as I flipped through page after page of course needs and grading policies. Fifteen minutes later, we had painstakingly read through the first two sections of the syllabus-the ones that said there would be absolutely no make-ups for missed quizzes and, come Hell or high water, we were to be planted firmly in a chair in that very room at precisely 10 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday until the semester ended or Jesus returned, whichever occurred first.

The professor then stressed the importance of having and using a dictionary by teaching us what the word asterisk meant, and urged us to flip to the back of our syllabus.

Some time later, when I arrived at the designated page, I noticed the professor had photocopied several poems that I assumed would be read sometime before the course ended. He later explained the reason for his photocopying stemmed from a longtime disdain for the campus bookstore, which I shared.

The professor stepped to the front of the room and quietly began reading the first stanza of the first poem, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” I had skimmed the poem before for other classes, soaking in just enough to answer a few questions on the next test before expelling it from my brain to make room for sports statistics and spoilers for my favorite TV shows.

This time was different than the previous ones, however. The professor explained Wordsworth’s prose slowly, line by line and section by section, and I began to realize something I had never bothered to before. The poem wasn’t just about a man sitting in a field and staring at the trees, cliffs and streams that surrounded it, but also how that man viewed the world around him.

Using the oft-skimmed poem, the professor explained how the way we view the world, and the people in it, has become vastly different as time has marched on. Wordsworth wrote about a place he had visited five years earlier, but was able to vividly recall in his memory because he had taken the time to really look at it the first time he was there.

He didn’t do what I would have, and let the scene slip from his mind in favor of something that would turn out to be far less important in the long run. I went in that room last Thursday expecting nothing but a run-of-the-mill syllabus, but I walked out having learned a valuable lesson.

Looking isn’t necessarily seeing, and hearing isn’t necessarily listening.

The professor asked how many times we had walked across the quad in the middle of campus. When we told him we crossed it often, he said, “How many trees and buildings surround it?”

Not one of us could answer his question.

Life is so busy most of the time that we don’t bother to stop, relax and smell the roses, as they say.

Last Thursday I learned that I look all the time, but I rarely see anything.

Sadly, this applies to most people we come in contact with, too. When someone walks by, greets us and asks how we are doing, the usual obligatory response is, “I’m fine, how are you?”

Rarely do we stick around long enough for their response, because we hear, but we’re so busy trying to get ahead, we never take the time to listen.

Since that first day of my last semester of college, I have resolved to not only look, but see, and not only hear, but listen. I never would have guessed I would learn such a lesson on the first day of class, but it happened- and I think I’m better for it.

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