Photo of University Hall
Creative Research Center

Giving thanks for the classroom – by Neil Baldwin

Posted in: Director's Essay

Laurentius de Voltolina

Last Wednesday, promptly at 5:30, as I have done every Wednesday evening since the beginning of the semester, I stood up, slowly shut the door to the seminar room, returned to my seat at the head of the table, looked around at the murmuring assembled students, and checked them off one by one (yes, all fifteen were there, books, papers and laptops at the ready); then, as always, I slapped my left hand upon the table, and announced, “OK, class is starting!”

And then, as my poetic mentor, William Carlos Williams, once wrote, “the world narrowed to a point.”

How many classroom doors had I closed over the past half-century? How many times had I made the liminal transition from diffuse to focused, outside to inside, restless to settled, talking to silent?

Over the course of my teaching journey from elementary through high school to higher education, from day schools to night schools, community centers to libraries, to senior centers and psychiatric hospitals, and on and on, my classroom has, at times, been delimited, ruled, and confined; and has also been “without walls,” “open,” “mixed,” and “a safe space.” Students have been seated on rugs, in wheelchairs, in rows upon rows, in circles and in rectangles.

Yet how many times, no matter where the class was convened, had my synapses habitually lit up without my stopping to think about where the students and I had come from — and where we were going?

The door to my seminar room clicked shut, and I made a point of establishing eye-contact with everyone in turn. An ineffable warmth ran through my body, as if a blanket were draped over my shoulders. I swivelled slightly to look out the window behind me. Darkness had arrived. Through the vertical blinds, I could see intimations of a snowfall. I smiled — the same smile as when I sank back into my couch at home and picked up where I left off with a good book. Now, I told everyone to turn to the act and scene in the play we had been reading for the past several weeks.

The students did so, but not with (so-called) obedience. Rather, their willingness surged over the rustling pages, accompanied by palpable readiness. I had a sudden vision of a wellspring of words gathered in an aura around each person’s head, each halo a different size and shape.

I began to call on them. The first to speak did not respond by obligation; they offered up replies, theories, and interpretations with hesitant pride tempered by vulnerability.  Others chimed in, not to score points on the participation scale, but predicated upon what the person across the table had just said. Still others listened, preferring to hold back until they felt the right moment had come.

Every so often, during a pause, I would ask myself, “Should I interject and say what I believe, or keep my mouth shut, and let them all forge ahead without me?” Most of the time, I behaved myself – until, again as usual, despite my best intentions, I forgot the discipline of pedagogical restraint, my engines cranked up and I started sermonizing. Finished, face flushed, I apologized to their respectful silence. The students didn’t seem to mind — or, diplomatically, didn’t let on if they minded or not.

After one especially provocative question, deep into the second hour of class, the group introspection was so thickly-gathered nobody moved or breathed.

And I heard it: the blessed chorus of collective thought.