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September 20, 2007 - 5:09pm



Every fall semester is the shock of the new.

The courses repeat; the classrooms don't change; but every September there's a jolt.

Partly it's the surprise of a long summer ending, the sudden intrusion of a social world into my solitude. For months I've quietly read and written, my afternoons organized around brewing tea, clipping hedges, and walking the dog. The sense of independence and freedom has been heady, and I don't give it up easily.

In part it's the peculiarity of my city. Summer's a down time for Congress - for news generally - and like a lot of Washingtonians I tend to gauge the intensity of my life by the larger political bustle. July and August here are mainly about tourists plodding through the subway. In September they're gone, and the long black limousines are suddenly back, blaring by my office on their way to the White House.

Above all, September's jolt is about the newness of the personalities that present themselves to me among my students. I suppose you could do a typology of George Washington University students if you wanted to; but few of them actually play to type. Each comes at you with a specific blend of energy and intellect, bellicosity and sensitivity.

They get to me.

A little bit of my response to them is self-recognition, the business of being thrown back into earlier versions of oneself. You encounter in a certain sophomore the shy girl trying to wise up and butch up that you were in your sophomore year, and that's a startling thing.

Much more of it is the ability to perceive youth itself as, year after year, it appears again.

"I'll be missing Wednesday's class," said one of my students to me, in a strange, dazed tone, a few years ago. "My voice professor... Well, you probably heard... She killed herself... There's a memorial service..."

Yes, I knew one of my colleagues had done that, just as I knew, scanning my student's face, that I was witnessing in real time her assimilation into actuality. I sensed, sentence to sentence, the erosion of her easy assurance about existence.

A week later, this student again came up to me after class. "You know," she said, a little embarrassed, "I went to this, uh, group therapy session at the university. Grief counselors for her students and all that... I was appalled... It was so dry, so simplistic, a bunch of buzz words. Actually, I was almost laughing. Don't these people know how complicated life is? There aren't easy answers, and it's stupid to act as if there are... I wanted to tell you, because, you know, these poems we're reading, they're difficult because they don't have answers, and I like that. I like poems that let you feel what it feels like to be confused... I'm rambling, aren't I?"

Not at all, not at all. Jolting me awake.


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