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Authors: May Sarton

The Small Room (8 page)

BOOK: The Small Room

“Don't shoot till you see the whites of her eyes!” Carryl laughed.

But Lucy felt too badgered and on the defensive to take things lightly. “I think you're probably right,” she said turning to Olive Hunt. “Of course one tries to reach the whole person, but if I began to see my students outside the conferences, I wouldn't have time to read their papers or to prepare my classes. Besides,” plunging recklessly into the center of the problem again, “don't you think it's dangerous to get personally involved?”

The blue eyes narrowed. “Dangerous? Pish-tush!”

“How are they going to learn anything about feeling if they don't feel?” Carryl Cope was suddenly really involved, Lucy felt, almost angry. “The trouble with all of you is that you have acquired a set of formulas that make it possible for you to reduce life to a mechanism. We are all a little in love with our teachers, and a very good thing too.”

Lucy felt an immense gulf between herself and these two powerful and powerfully unconscious women, the gulf of the generation, and she decided it was time to go. She got up, glancing at her watch. “I really must tear myself away,” she said awkwardly, not knowing quite how to leave. “Those freshman papers …”

“Oh dear, must you? Just when things began to get tense,” Carryl Cope teased. “But you have to sit down for five minutes. I want to speak of Jane Seaman before you go.”

So—that was it, the real reason behind the invitation. Carryl Cope had showed her hand at last.

“What about Jane?” Lucy said, still nettled and prickly, “she appears to be everything one could possibly hope for in a student. And
makes no personal demands.”

“We've rubbed Lucy the wrong way,” Carryl Cope announced with a smile. “Jane is enjoying your course very much, by the way.”

“It's a grand class,” Lucy responded, glad for a change of subject. “They keep me on my mettle. Jane is doing a paper on Melville's viability as a subject for certain fashionable critical approaches. I must confess this seems to me pretty advanced stuff for her to undertake. The reading it will require is prodigious, but she seemed so very eager to have a try.” Then Lucy felt she must say one more thing about what had occurred earlier. “You don't rub me the wrong way. It's just that I feel overwhelmed. I don't see how anyone can be a good teacher, let alone a great one. You can't win: either you care too much or too little; you're too impersonal or too personal; you don't know enough or you bury the students in minutiae; you try to teach them to write an honest sentence, and then discover that what is involved is breaking a psychological block that can only be broken if you take on the role of psychoanalyst, parent, friend—God knows what!” This passionate sally was greeted with laughter. “You laugh, but it's hell!”

“It's all right,” Carryl said, still laughing. “We all feel exactly as you do. The relation between student and teacher must be about the most complex and ill-defined there is.”

“And that's why you're all so alive here,” Lucy said, mollified.

“Or all so dead! But I won't let you go,” she added, as Lucy once more made a move, “without one word more. I do have the idea that Jane is pushing things a bit too hard.”

Lucy felt baffled and tired. “Do you think then I should suggest a less difficult subject for her paper?”

“No.” Carryl Cope walked over to the windows to draw the curtains. “No,” she said thoughtfully, “I just wish you would keep an eye on her.”

So even the brilliant student, the paragon, must be watched and tended like a plant, now stimulated by water and sunlight, now placed in the shade temporarily!

“I'll do what I can.” Lucy stood in the middle of the room, hesitating between shaking Olive Hunt's hand and waiting for Miss Cope, who was rummaging about at her desk.

“Here, let me just give you this, an advance copy of
Appleton Essays
. Have you seen it before? We are rather proud of this little publication. You might be interested in Jane's analysis of
The Iliad.
” The closely printed, solemn-looking pamphlet was placed in Lucy's hands at the door. “I've enjoyed this. Now you have found your way, come again.”

“I'd love to.”

Lucy ran down the stairs, hearing the deep voice call behind her, “You won't get lost? Take the second turning on the left!”

Lucy took a deep breath as she closed the outside door behind her. It was not dark yet, and there was a smell of leaves and earth, the bitter autumn smell. An avenue of maples stretched before her, and through the clear late sky, a translucent green, she could see one planet shining. She walked slowly, tasting the moment, reluctant to go back to the gloomy faculty house, to the campus gossip around the little tables. She was thinking about the two powerful characters she had just left, and about the inwardness of their relationship. They had rubbed her the wrong way, she realized, made her feel sparky and tense like a cat whose fur is full of electricity. It was not an unpleasant sensation.


Later that evening Lucy lay on her bed, still dressed, wondering how to summon the energy to get up and turn on her bath. She had found a three-hour stint correcting freshman papers deadening and exhausting. For once there had been no gleam to leaven the lump of dullness and adequacy. She had, apparently, led twenty-five intelligent girls to their first contact with a masterpiece—and simply nothing whatever had taken place to trouble the bland surface of their minds. They managed at best to sound as patronizing toward
The Iliad
as if they had been asked to review a C-grade movie!

Oh, she understood how one might plunge back into one's own work after a session like this, grunting with pleasure at the difficulties it presented like a pig hunting for truffles, how Carryl Cope must go back to that immense desk of hers and prickle with excitement and relief at being alone with her own mind for a change! Whereas all I do, Lucy admonished herself bitterly, is to lie down like lead, or fall into moodiness thinking of John. The name forced her to her feet and she turned her back resolutely on the ghost of John, only to meet him again as soon as she lay in the bath. Naked in the warm water, her sense of deprivation was acute. We are all babies crying for comfort, she reminded herself. Other women have gone this way before me. The contrast between her professional self and this miserable naked rejected woman seemed to her suddenly grotesque. She rubbed herself down hard as if to rub the image away, forced her mind to consider the Freshmen again, “they toil not, neither do they spin,” she said aloud, relieved that she could smile, and evoked their round unformed faces, which did after all in a curious way resemble the lilies of the field. I must find some way to reach them, she thought. Rage? A storm? Frighten them into paying attention. She pushed the means aside as unworthy. But the intensity of purpose and belief demanded of her in relation to them staggered her. Who am I to rouse the dead?

She got into bed and picked up the pamphlet Carryl Cope had given her with such obvious pride—well, that ought to put her to sleep! But it proved to be the worst possible choice, for after reading the first page of Jane Seaman's essay, Lucy felt a chill of apprehension run through her, and she read on with increasing dread and dismay. Was this hallucination? Or had she read almost the same words, and certainly the same ideas, somewhere else, just the other day. But where? She had spent an afternoon reading all sorts of odd essays and books, hoping to get a new slant on
The Iliad
, to see it freshly for herself before teaching it.

When she laid the pages down, she could not sleep but lay wideawake in the dark, her mind restlessly leading her here and there, playing the tricks memory will, the size of a page or the cover of a book spotlighted suddenly, then disappearing. Then she thought she was coming close as the title “The Poem of Force” swam into her consciousness. But the author escaped her. There was nothing to be done but wait till she could get to the library in the morning.

If only it could not be true! Or … what if she just forgot about it? She was not Jane Seaman's conscience.

But she had, as every instructor was asked to do, made a brief statement of standards and requirements when she met her classes first. An overt, proved instance of plagiarism would mean expulsion from the college. For this there could be no extenuating circumstances. I am Jane Seaman's instructor, she reminded herself, I do have a special concern … she could see, in her mind's eye, that lock of fair hair, trained to fall over one eye, could hear the high clear voice saying, “But Miss Winter, surely …” Lucy had been ashamed of some deep resistance she had always felt about this girl. She had to admit that, whatever turned out to be the truth about this essay, Jane had a brilliant mind, and a need to excel so compelling that she would work fiendishly hard to achieve recognition. Why then jeopardize everything she had in her hands by an act that risked so much, like a teller who steals money from a bank? At this moment Jane had become a great deal more interesting and even
than she had ever seemed before.

The evidence—a copy of
The Mint
, an English publication which had died in the forties after a few issues—was painfully clear when Lucy finally tracked down in it Simone Weil's essay on “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force.” Lucy had discovered it after that dinner at the Beveridges', when Weil's name had come up … wouldn't Jack recognize the steal? If only the discovery didn't have to come from me, Lucy thought with a wild hope. She had been sitting, surrounded by students in the library, making a careful paragraph by paragraph comparison of the two essays. She felt as furtive as a criminal; her heart beat so loudly in the hush that she feared it must rouse the bent heads to lift, listen, and accuse. In her slightly hallucinated state of tension, she felt like some messenger of evil in a Greek play, one of those who, if he escapes with his life, is shunned because it was he who brought the news of defeat. How crazy can you get? Lucy asked herself wryly, as she signed for
The Mint
and made her way out into the most serene of November evenings. Quite suddenly the leaves had fallen. One day they were simply gone after a high wind and rain, pasted onto the shiny black macadam of the roads, shuffled together in the gutters. The bare trees floated like seaweed against a pale yellow sky. It smelled like snow, fresh, a new air … the winter air. Lucy stood there for a moment on the library steps and breathed it all in.

Then she turned toward Hallie's house, crossing the campus diagonally, past the dingy old biology building, past the chapel, and out onto the street, where she faced the row of white clapboard houses she had come to know so well. A few doors away Jennifer Finch lived with her mother, and around the corner, the Beveridges. The President's house was set back from the road on a slight elevation. In this light it all looked like an engraving of a New England town, perfectly at peace with itself. The white spire of the Unitarian church added the final touch, and once more Lucy found herself wondering how much this seasoned shell contained of thinned-out blood, failure, and despair. Yet at this moment, walking fast, compelled by the burden she carried, she could not deny its beauty, quiet as a balm. Here, surely, turbulent emotion could come to rest, or be decently buried.

Hallie opened the door to her ring. “You're just the person I want to see. Come in and sit by the fire. Chilly out!”

The atmosphere felt so homely and good that the wild doubt crossed Lucy's mind: have I invented the whole thing? She found it hard to speak.

“Sit down,” Hallie urged.

“No,” Lucy said, standing with her back to the fire. “I can't. I have a problem, Hallie.” She held herself fast to the moment, as if when it was gone, she would not be the same; nothing would be the same.

“I thought you looked a bit peaked.” Hallie disappeared into the next room and came back with a decanter of sherry and glasses. “Well, what's on your mind?”

“Have you read Jane Seaman's piece in the
Appleton Essays?

“I read proof on it. Why?”

“She stole it, almost a complete paraphrase, and in a few places direct quote.”

“Are you sure?”

Lucy put the copy of
The Mint
, opened to the crucial page, into Hallie's hands. One glance would be sufficient. But Hallie read on. And Lucy sipped her sherry, feeling the relief of laying her burden, carried through the long night and the long day, upon someone else's shoulders, someone experienced and wise, someone she could trust.

After what seemed an eternity of silence, tempered only by the seethe of a green log on the fire and the loud ticking of a clock, Hallie looked up.

“What I can't understand,” she said after gazing off into the distance for a moment, “is what made her do it.”

“She's throwing away so much. I keep seeing that face, so closed and sure of itself, and so intelligent, after all.”

“Of course, she's a student of yours. I'd forgotten for a moment. My dear, what a horrible thing for you! I
sorry!” And her concern was balm. “You didn't need to have this particular problem your first year. Do you know, in my more than twenty years here I can only remember two cases as clearcut as this … and neither of them was a Senior, a brilliant student or …” and she caught her breath, “one in whom so much has been invested.”

“Carryl Cope,” Lucy murmured.

“What a mess!”

“What happens now? What does one do?” Then she suddenly remembered. “I wonder if Professor Cope was aware that something might be wrong. She suggested yesterday that I not push Jane too hard, but,” Lucy added eagerly, “she's not a student you push. She pushes herself.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Hallie said absentmindedly. “Poor Jane!” Then she added, “It is rather inhuman of me, but I must confess that my first thought was for Carryl in all this. You ask about process,” she said drily. “The case will have to go to student government, and then to the faculty. At least,” Lucy sensed the hesitation, “that is what has always been done.”

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