Monday, August 23, 2010

A Professor To Remember

I remember going on tours of college campuses that were often led by overly zealous student guides. After a while, the beautiful buildings, the vast opportunities, the prestigious alums...they all seemed to run together. Don't get me wrong - they were fantastic - and, for all of those reasons and more, I feel so lucky to have attended Colby College.

One thing I do remember, though, on most of those tours were the looks on the guides' faces as they spoke about their professors. This was particularly true at Colby. It was the way they described these connections that stuck with me - the way one or two professors invested in them as human beings (not just as students) and how how it changed their course in life. At the time, I couldn't picture having that sort of relationship with a teacher, but four great years and one English major later,  I became one of these gushing students. I found professors that made me grow in ways that I'm still discovering; individuals I still speak with today and who will always inspire me tremendously.

I wrote about these professors in my March post, The Strength Of Poetry.  Peter Harris is an English professor who incidentally taught my three favorite courses at Colby: my senior poetry workshop (where I had the chance to complete an intensive poetry thesis), Buddhism in American Poetry, and Teaching Poetry in Schools. The latter gave me an incredible opportunity to teach poetry to local elementary students. It was amazing! Peter's classes weren't just classes - they were experiences. They fueled not only my love of reading and writing, but of life. It's hard to articulate, but they made me feel like I belonged. 

Since I know Peter understands illness and also cares about me, I recently reached out to him about my pain. Somehow I knew he'd say the right thing in a time I was feeling overwhelmed. He replied promptly and, within his letter, was this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Pain--has an Element of Blank--
It cannot recollect
When it begun--or if there were 
A time when it was not--

It has no Future--but itself--
Its Infinite contain
Its Past--enlightened to perceive
New Periods--of Pain.

As I learned from Peter, Emily Dickinson was a person who often lived in great pain. This poem reflects a central truth about pain. No matter how one might try to anticipate a better day in the mist of suffering, real pain pulls us back into the moment. This speaks to the scope and depth of my own feelings when I'm at my worst. Especially this summer when I haven't experienced a reprieve from this pain, I find myself believing it will last forever. But it wont. I have to remember that it wont.

Peter, thank you for  everything you've taught me and continue to teach me...for knowing I needed this poem and for the reminder that my emotions are universal. Thank you for helping me to become a writer and a better person. I am better for knowing you. Most of all, thank you for caring about me years later and for the reminder that, because of the written word and people like you, I'll never be alone. 


1 comment:

  1. "We know. We know the fear of unknown disability and uncertain futures. We know how what you thought you were is no longer how you are. We know how hard life has become in more ways than anyone else can possibly know. We know. We are a miracle in your life. We are the vindication that you are not alone, that you are understood by someone. We are your reassurance that despite it all, you can make it through the difficult times. We are your mirror and your sounding board. We are your miracle. We are not alone, we are united in our understanding. We are each other's insistence that we can carry on, that giving up is not an option. We are each other's lesson that our lives still have worth and can continue on, striving to learn and then reaching out to teach, in an unending cycle of giving and receiving.

    When you sink into despair, and think the worst, We know. We have too. We know all the levels of Hell that there are to know. Just as you know them. We are your miracle. We will steady you, so you don't fall, help you learn to cope and shed real tears for your pain, which is the pain we, ourselves know all too well.

    There is a moment, sometimes long after they tell you that you have an incurable, chronic degenerative disease, that you come to know that you are still you and that despite it all, you are going to be all right. We are each other's miracle." Michael Smith, Spondyville