Read The Small Room Online

Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (10 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

But, at the touch, the fierce little animal and its pride rose up again. “Now you've got what you wanted, leave me alone!” What Lucy heard was not the words but the cry for help underneath them. She walked over to the window and looked out, and waited for the sobs to space themselves and slowly quiet down. “Is there someone you could talk to, Jane? I know I'm not much use …”

“At least, you're not fossilized like the others!”

“You've got to go through this now, and it's going to be tough. But you will not be alone, Jane. People care, you know.” Lucy was surprised to discover that she herself cared more than she would have thought possible a half hour ago. “It must be a relief to have this out in the open.” Then Lucy hesitated, wondering whether she had the right to hazard a guess. But she decided to take the risk. “Perhaps you wanted, without knowing that was what you wanted, to
found out, because then the spiral could be broken.”

“Maybe,” said a small humble voice. “Yes, that's true, I guess.” Jane blew her nose loudly and gave a wan smile.

Lucy felt she had been in this room for hours, for weeks, that she had been wrestling with powers and demons far beyond her wisdom to know how to handle, or even to understand. How small, crumpled, and how very young Jane looked, bent over on the chair, hugging herself. “Don't hesitate to come to the Faculty Club any time. I'll always be there if you need me.”

Then, without waiting for an answer, Lucy left the office and closed the door behind her. Let Jane take her time. At least, there, she would be alone.

The relief of getting away! The relief of stepping out into the ordinary air of evening, of passing groups of girls laughing and calling out to each other, as if nothing had happened. For the impact of the last hour, and the impact on herself of this role of inquisitor and judge had been greater than she knew at the time; she found that her knees were trembling.

It had been made abundantly clear in the last hour that teaching is first of all teaching a person. Somewhere along the line, someone had failed with Jane. Carryl Cope? That was Jane's own excuse and it would be dangerous indeed to jump to any such conclusion. Yet Lucy felt shaken. Was anyone safe from the perils of such responsibility? How carelessly she had criticized her own professors down the years! How little she had known or understood what tensions drove them on and tore them apart, what never-ending conflict they must weigh and balance each day. For she had come to see that it was possible, if one worked hard enough at it, to be prepared as far as subject matter went—though Lucy herself could not imagine such a blessed state—but it was not possible to be prepared to meet the twenty or more individuals of each class, each struggling to grow, each bringing into the room a different human background, each—Lucy felt now—in a state of peril where a too-rigorous demand or an instantaneous flash of anger might fatally turn the inner direction. Was she, for instance, shutting out Pippa's pleas for personal attention and response out of selfishness, fatigue, an unwillingness to give away anything of her inmost heart to a student? How did one know? How did one learn a sense of proportion, where to withdraw, where to yield?

And she guessed, not for the first time, that there could be no answer ever, that every teacher in relation to every single student must ask these questions over and over, and answer them differently in each instance, because the relationship is as various, as unpredictable as a love affair.


Lucy woke to a dull dead gray November day with an icy wind whipping round the buildings. Everyone ran across the campus, driven like a few late leaves; mufflers were wound round necks; knees over long woolen socks looked blue. Pieces of newspaper rose and fell and were flattened against stone steps; everything had a desolate, naked air. If only it would snow, Lucy thought, as she put her head down against the wind and walked fast toward her freshman class. She had with her a briefcase full of terrible papers.

The room when she got there, panting after the three flights of stairs, had the stale smell of a winter room, overheated; she flung open a window, feeling impatient with and irritated by the two or three students who sat there, as passive as fish. Then, as the bell pealed out, shrill and startling no matter how hard one had listened for it, the others came thundering in, blowing on fingers, unwinding scarves, and Lucy experienced the tremor of anxiety that always accompanied this moment of suspense.

Was it the subdued giggle in the back of the room, when one of the new arrivals slammed the window shut again? Or was it the sullen expression of Mary Ford in the front row, she who was apt to explain accusingly that she had sat up all night over a paper that was marked D minus, as if tired work were a virtue and deserved a better grade? Something in the atmosphere touched Lucy like a whip. She brushed the notes she had been reading over aside, and stood up, hardly aware of the amount of suppressed emotion she was about to release.

“Wake up!” She was astonished to hear herself saying, “It's nine o'clock in the morning and you look like a drove of whales washed up by the tide.”

Laughter rose and then quickly subsided as they sensed that this had not been meant kindly, or as a joke. They all shifted nervously, their eyes open very wide, like children at a play.

“Now listen!” Lucy opened
The Iliad
and began to read. She read as she had never managed to read before, the words falling like hailstones because she was so angry. And she could feel the electric current she was setting up, the something like a sigh that ran across the room and bound them together, those twenty-five wandering attentions, into a fused whole. She read here and there, sometimes giving a word of explanation to remind them of where the passage appeared; she read for twenty minutes by the clock that ticked relentlessly in front of her. Then, when she had finished and closed the book, she took three of the worst papers out and read a paragraph or two from each of them.

“This was the material before you, and this is how you honored it,” she said, looking at the class with real hostility. “Here is one of the great mysterious works of man, as great and mysterious as a cathedral. And what did you do? You gave it so little of your real selves that you actually achieved boredom. You stood in Chartres cathedral
. For the ancients this book was very much what a cathedral became for the people of the Middle Ages, a storehouse of myth, legend, and belief, the great structure where faith was nourished and the values of a civilization depicted … and you didn't bother to look at it!”

She picked up another of the dull C papers and read it through. “This is not a matter of grades. You'll slide through all right. It is not bad, it is just flat. It's the sheer poverty of your approach that is horrifying!”

Now for the first time Lucy heard the appalled silence she had created around her. The class seemed hardly to be breathing. But she was riding a wave, and had to go on as she had begun, until the wave broke, until the bell rang. “Very well,” she ended. “Your next assignment is
. Please come prepared to discuss it, and that means

The clock gave a final tick in the silence and then the bell shrilled out. At that moment the class, to Lucy's immense surprise, burst into spontaneous applause. She had been so concentrated that she had entirely forgotten herself and, in a curious way, even the class. Their applause made her blush.

“I'm sorry,” she said, “but you deserved it.”

As soon as the spell was broken, she realized that she had spoken as she did, with that violence, because Jane Seaman had been in the back of her mind all the time, Jane's kind of intensity; as if she had been so angry with these freshmen because they would never have the wit to discover Simone Weil's essay, let alone steal from it, as if her burst of rage had been an unconscious defense of Jane. Yes, she saw now, whatever had happened in her office the day before, she had committed herself to the defense.

“That was wonderful,” a clear young voice broke into her thoughts. “Why didn't you get angry before?”

Lucy laughed, but underneath, and as she walked back across the campus, she felt humiliated. “No, no, no,” she said aloud.

“No what?” It was, surprisingly enough, Jennifer Finch who stood there before her, smiling, “You seem to be saying a rather definite ‘no' to the world at large.”

“I've just put on an exhibition of rage to a class of Freshmen. Now I feel ashamed.”


Faced with this question, Lucy had to think. “I suppose one has the idea that if one can only get their real attention by having a tantrum, one must be a rather poor teacher.”

“Well …” Jennifer Finch lifted her chin and looked about, taking her time, as she always did. “Isn't it a matter of temperament? Maybe that is one way you can communicate; I would find it devastating, but I am not you.”

know,” Lucy said fervently.

“I know plenty about failure, if that is what you mean.”

So they all said, Lucy thought, recognizing the climate of this profession as one might recognize the climate of a nunnery, the daily, hourly examination of conscience.

“I suppose,” she faltered, “there are as many kinds of good teachers as there are of artists.”

“It is an art,” Miss Finch responded, for once, instantly. And then with her usual unexpected slant, she added, “It is also an art to be a student. I wonder sometimes if we think enough about that. Learning is such a very painful business. It requires humility from people at an age where the natural habitat is arrogance,” and she smiled her discreet smile. “But, oh dear me, here I am philosophizing when I should be teaching a class in calculus this minute.”

Lucy watched her go, the stooped figure in a mackintosh, like an angel in the most inappropriate of disguises, and wondered if she knew about Jane yet, and if Carryl Cope knew. She felt reluctant to go back to her room, where she would have to decide whether to go home for Thanksgiving or not. On her desk lay a letter from her mother, and the question loomed. She was aware that she did not really want to go. She remembered hearing that if an animal is caged long enough it does not want to be released, and will not walk out through an open door. It had taken her all these weeks to get acclimatized to the cage of Appleton, and now she was almost afraid of a few days absence from it, of the whole adjustment to life at home (shades of John too), to her mother's moods, to the inevitable calls on her two aunts. What she longed to do was go off somewhere alone, to a hotel in a strange city, and there quietly chew the cud of these last weeks, ruminate, be still, read …

On an impulse she turned back and decided to visit Hallie's eleven o'clock class; perhaps the witnessing of a master of the art would help quiet her mind and set things back into a true balance again. At least it would keep her from facing everything on her desk for another hour.

“May I?” Lucy asked, at the door.

“Of course, delighted to have you.” While the girls assembled, Hallie sat at her desk, with a pile of books before her, entirely concentrated on something she was reading. Lucy noticed the warmth of this room where the romantic poets and the English novel had been taught for so many years: pots of African violets on the window-sill, the worn torn map of the British Isles on the wall, posters of the Lake Country, of Bath, and the bookshelves at the back crammed with pamphlets and clippings. Hallie faced a semicircle of chairs three rows deep; this was a popular course. She did not lift her head until the bell had rung, until the girls were seated and quiet.

And Lucy herself felt the slight chill at her spine, the suspense, as the whole class was poised on silence. If this preparation had seemed to foretell a dramatic opening, a speech from the chair, the exact opposite took place. Hallie looked out the window a moment, then said quite casually,

“You have now all read at least some of the Keats letters. Would one of you like to read a passage aloud, or a whole letter that you think appropriate for class discussion?”

Half a dozen hands flew up, and they were launched.

It happened that the first two letters to be read aloud each spoke of “ripeness” or of “ripening,” first an early one written in 1818: “Nothing is finer for the purpose of great productions than a very gradual ripening of the intellectual powers.” (The last phrase, pointed up by Hallie in an ironic reference to themselves, caused a ripple of amusement.) The second and third choices introduced the Keats who educated himself by reading. “An extensive knowledge” (so he had written in May of 1818, so a young girl's voice repeated now) “is needful for thinking people—it takes away the heat and fever; and helps, by widening speculation, to ease the burden of Mystery …” They were familiar passages, of course, being rediscovered once more as if the ink were barely dry on the page. The students were excited (who would not be?). Lucy watched Hallie quietly pushing them to analyse, to bring together and consider as a whole the growth of this young man of genius, watched her do this with a casual question, with a smile of enjoyment, drawing attention to specific words, “a diligent indolence,” or the pungent series of verbs from an early letter to Fanny, “go out and wither at tea parties; freeze at dinners; bake at dances; simmer at routs.” For such a young man the evidence of pain might show itself first as irony. But Lucy sensed that Hallie was keeping tragedy at a distance still, deliberately holding the class back from the late feverish letters.

And slowly, what had been a painful, stumbling series of unrelated questions and answers became something like a fugue. Hallie was gently imposing a line, bringing them back to certain themes played over and over-thought, language, character, the making of a poet. And as she led the class back to these major chords, again and again, weaving in and out, asking the probing question, responding to the sensitive answer, what had in the first few moments been a professor “drawing out” a student, had become now a true dialogue. The students had been driven, probed, excited to a degree of concentration and power that could not have been imagined when the class began.

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