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Authors: May Sarton

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BOOK: The Small Room

If she had feared that Appleton's emphasis on scholarship might have brought forth a group of cranks or creeps, girls in spectacles, girls who walk with their heads down, monsters of morose self-absorption and shyness, the reverse appeared to be true. They were frighteningly healthy and natural, but undifferentiated. And Lucy longed to separate the dancing corps into individual faces and names, to make contact with an actual class. She sighed and turned back to her desk, threw out the notes she had been laboriously making, and decided suddenly to do something quite different. To prepare for this first class, she found herself exploring and recovering areas in herself that had been blotted out by the last years. She had been living in someone else, now she must draw on herself. She had never realized until now what extraordinary teachers she had had, nor what complex threads had been woven together to bring her to the moment, this perilous, exhilarating moment when she would be asked to summon all that she held in her hands and to communicate it.

At precisely five minutes past the hour a few days later she walked into Holmes D, to meet the American Renaissance section. The dinginess of the room struck her between the eyes, and also the unfocussed look of the twelve or so girls scattered about it. Her knees trembled idiotically as she stepped onto the small platform and sat down behind the desk. She looked up, met a pair of rather vague blue eyes, and dropped hers. The moment was of a gravity for her, had a weight that it could not possibly have for them, after all. They had not approached this hour with their hearts skipping a beat, with a prickle of gooseflesh on their skins. In the second's pause, panic flowed in. She held it at bay by asking them in a rather firm voice to tell her their names. While they did so, she looked at the faces, a mistake, for, when they had all spoken, she realized that she had attached only one name to a person, that of Jane Seaman. The prize student sat hunched over, fair hair falling over one eye, a small-featured, secretive face that yielded nothing of itself. Lucy was conscious of being rather sardonically observed, and responded by stating at once that this was not going to be an easy course, that it would require extensive reading, and two major papers.

“I am not going to lecture after today,” she said, “I shall expect you to do the talking, and in fact we shall consider ourselves a seminar.” She felt rising in her a faint intoxication, stemming from the concentrated attention that faced her. With it came a wave of happiness. What will
think of Thoreau, she asked herself, her eyes resting on a girl with a curiously old-fashioned look. Her face formed a perfect oval; she had reddish curly hair; her eyes seemed very wide-open or on the verge of tears (odd)—was her name Pippa? Lucy tried vainly to remember, as she opened her notebook and took a deep breath. This was it.

“It occurred to me that a lively class—and I hope you will prove to be that—is rather like a tennis match. If so, you have a right to know something about your opponent on the court. So I am taking the period today to tell you where I stand. It will give you a clue to prejudices and predilections, as well as a clue to beliefs and standards.”

Lucy sensed the increased stir of attention; those who had brought books closed them with an air of expectation.

“As I thought about meeting you today, I looked back over my own education and was astonished at how rich and complex, how various the attitudes had been, and how various the demands made upon me by the great teachers in my life, how massive their influence.”

There was a pause. Lucy felt compelled to get up, walk down from the raised platform to the windows, and look out, as she talked to them first about her father. “His hobby,” she said, “was cabinet-making. In the large old-fashioned apartment where we lived one room was devoted to his tools and workbench.” How dull it sounded! She longed to make this room vivid, to evoke in the dank classroom its sweet clean smells of wax, of resin and turpentine. She longed to bring before them her father in an old pair of dungarees, the look of happy concentration on his face as he whistled Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, the way his delicate surgeon's hand stroked a piece of wood. What she could not tell them, but it swept over her in a wave of poignant regret, was how as a child she had longed for the same care and tenderness toward herself. Had she been silent for long? She was suddenly acutely aware of the loud tick of the clock on the wall, jerking the minutes away, admonishing her to keep to the subject. She spoke brusquely now, in an accelerated tempo, of what she had learned from her father about the importance of slow careful work, of close attention to detail, and of how much she had, as a child, resented his compulsive neatness. “You will discover,” she added with a smile, “that you appreciate teachers rather a long time after you have suffered from them.”

Her smile was answered with a ripple of response. She was discovering that she could talk to these girls with perfect directness, in a way she had never been able to talk to anyone before in her life, as if the group of twelve were itself an entity, a delightfully giving personality, and as if she—freed by the strangely intimate yet impersonal circumstance—could give it something of herself that she would never be able to give to an individual human being.

She spoke then of a woman teacher whose rages had taught the terrified students a respect for France and French civilization that had lasted through their lives. “It is hard for me even now,” Lucy heard herself saying, “to detach myself from the conviction I held at twelve years old that the French are superior in every way to everyone else.” (Dear Mademoiselle Monnet she thought, as she sat down to look at her notes, where are you now? With your elegance and fury, with your radiant joy as you recited La Fontaine?) “We learned to respect a subject—in a school where it seemed often that we ourselves were the main subject of passionate attention.”

The irony in Lucy's tone escaped her listeners, she felt, but if she had lost them briefly, they came back as she spoke of Mr. Nagle who had given up a highly-paid job on
magazine because he wanted to teach English. What a sacred phenomenon he had appeared to his students, many of whose parents would have thought such a decision simply crazy! “But that was not why he was a great teacher,” she reminded them and herself. “I have come to see that he communicated to us a rather rare quality in my profession.” Lucy was so startled to hear herself use the phrase “my profession” that she stammered slightly as if she had just told a lie. “It w-w-was humility. He was devastatingly honest, with a kind of honesty that forced him to ask questions rather than to make statements, and to question himself as seriously as he did us.”

Jane Seaman was looking out the window. Bored? It was possible, after all, that the whole idea of this lecture was a fiasco, and they were finding her merely absurd. The clock gave another loud tick, as the hand jerked away another minute. Yet, in the tension established in her own mind
vis à vis
Jane Seaman, Lucy found strength. I'll make her pay attention, she said to herself, launching into a description of the professor of philosophy she had sat under in college. She explained that she had failed the midyear examination in Professor Greene's course, but that he had taken the trouble to call her in and talk it over, although this was a class of two hundred and such attentions were hardly to be expected.

“‘You're trying to jump the gun, Miss …' and I remember he had to look for my name on the blue book … He told me that my paper was clumsy, but that it contained one original concept. Was I aware of that? [I was not.] Well, I had better hold my horses and master the subject before I launched into private speculations. ‘However,' he added with a severely uncompromising look in his eye, ‘I respect you, Miss Winter, and you must learn to respect yourself. The people who made A on this exam may never think an original thought. You can. You'll do better next time, please.' Well,” Lucy smiled, “you can imagine how hard I worked after that!”

She noticed then, at what had seemed a moment of triumph, that the girls were gathering their books together, and there was a faint stirring among them as of a flock of birds about to rise and fly away. She still had five minutes, and she swung out into the air like a trapeze artist, forcing their attention back by the recklessness of her drive.

“I have just one more exemplar and the record will be complete. Professor Hardy, in my own field of American literature, was a tease—genial, outgoing, the kind of professor who actually seems to enjoy having students around. He said that the trouble with women students” (immediately Lucy felt the prickle of renewed attention) “is that their very intensity gets in the way of the valuable nonchalant roving eye. I'm sure you have realized at the end of this hour of self-revelation that I am one of the serious characters to whom these remarks were addressed. Professor Hardy opened out for all of us the conception of what the French used to call the ‘gai scavoir.' You are not yet aware of the excruciating self-tortures Ph.D. students go through, nor how remarkable this professor was, who wore his learning so lightly that he forced you to wear yours with at least an attempt at a sense of proportion. I'm afraid that most of us were rather more like elephants dancing than like Ariel,” (was Jane Seaman smiling? Lucy thought she caught a fleeting smile on that ungiving face) “but we could imagine the lightness mastery makes possible. I shall try not to take you too seriously, and I hope that sentiment may be reciprocated.” Lucy glanced nervously at the clock and added, “Whew! I just managed to get in under the line!” The bell pealed out like some dreadful siren, and at once the whole building trembled as classes tumbled out and thundered down the stairs. “Until next week and Mr. Thoreau!”

Lucy closed her notebook, got up, and was about to make her escape when she was stopped at the door by the Victorian-looking redhead she had noticed early in the hour. The others eddied round them.

“That was very interesting, Miss Winter. Especially about your father.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said. She did not want to speak to anyone at the moment. “What is your name? I must begin to try to remember names …”

“Pippa Brentwood.”

They stood there. Pippa hesitated on the brink of whatever it was she wished to say. She blushed. Tears, to Lucy's horror, sprang to her eyes. “About your father … You see, my father died this summer.”

After all, Lucy had chosen to speak to them first on a personal level. But this intimacy upset her. She wanted to continue to speak to the class as an entity; her instinct was to shy away. She fumbled with her purse and wondered how on earth to handle this plea for sympathy, for pity, for understanding from a perfect stranger.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she murmured. “That is hard. Are you a Senior?”


They were stranded there in the empty classroom, while the roar of life went on around them.

“Thank you for telling me,” Lucy said because she could not summon any other remark that would not bring forth, she sensed, a flood of tears. “Well, I'll see you next week,” and, abruptly, she fled.

Self-doubt, Harriet Summerson had said; Lucy blushed inwardly the whole way across the campus to meet her for lunch at the faculty club. The superficiality of what she herself had managed to utter in the last hour appalled her. Exactitude, commitment, humility, self-respect indeed! She had even forgotten to sum up in those four words what she had meant to get over to the class.

But, in the midst of this bitter self-examination, it was a relief to sit down opposite Hallie Summerson. Today in a blue tweed suit with a liberty silk print of small blue flowers beneath it, she was aesthetically satisfying, because so completely what she was; no vestige of make-up concealed the fine lines round her clear blue eyes. They sat where they could look out on the lawn, already dotted with scarlet and yellow maple leaves.

When they had ordered creamed chicken, ice cream and coffee—nursery food, Lucy thought, perfectly suited to her shaken state of mind—and when they had talked about autumn and how lovely it could be in New England, Hallie paused and shot Lucy an observant glance. “Well, how did it go? I've already heard one report, so you see I am not afraid to ask the question.”

“It was an experiment” (but what exactly had Miss Summerson heard?) “and at the moment I can only think that it failed.”

“Good sign,” Miss Summerson nodded. “One always gets a negative reaction after a good class. It's one of the hazards of the profession.”

“Is it?”

“You've given a piece of yourself away, even if it is only a certain amount of nervous energy, don't you know? And you are a bit deflated as a result—diminished, one might say.”

“Oh.” Lucy considered this and rejected it. “What depressed me, I think, was that I tried to say something about learning and teaching, and the only result was that a girl wanted to tell me about her father's death.”

“Pippa Brentwood, I expect. She does tend to dramatize,” Hallie answered Lucy's nod, “and I'm afraid her father's death, sudden and tragic as it was, has given her rather a chance to indulge herself.”

“I felt cornered. I don't believe in personal relationships between teachers and students, do you?”

Miss Summerson raised her eyebrows with an air of faint amusement. “Theoretically, no.”

“But it happens that the theory doesn't work?”

“Maybe you are one of the rare professors in a college of this sort who can keep her distance. That would be wisdom.”

“Rare in one so young?” Lucy responded to the ironic tone.


“No comment,” Lucy laughed. It was a relief to be talking to an adult for a change. “It's amazing how after just one class, I realize things I hadn't even imagined.”

“For instance?”

“For instance, the rather suspect intoxication of the captive audience. These girls are almost uncannily responsive.”

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