Friday, June 13, 2014

Thomas Merton, Adjunct Instructor

Many people today will be focused on the intersection of a full moon and a Friday the 13th.


I am much more interested in this crossing of paths, which seems much more random.  I was struck by this post on Paul Elie's blog that noted that Thomas Merton was an adjunct instructor at Columbia University’s Extension division.  As such, he could have taught J.D. Salinger.

Elie goes on to trace the many footsteps that have followed in that path, paths that might have crossed in that classroom building:  "And it’s striking that, while we [Elie and Salinger biographer Thomas Beller] were there, Eudora Welty – who had traveled to New York from Jackson for the memorial service for Walker Percy – paid a visit to the Graduate Writing Division and recounted that she had been a student in the same building, pursuing a degree in business in 1930 and 1931."

I briefly thought about which paths might have crossed mine--Gail Godwin coming to my little liberal arts college campus for a visit, James Dickey playing guitar at grad student gatherings at the University of South Carolina.  But then my brain went back to the earlier part of the blog post.

Thomas Merton was an adjunct instructor?

Of course, it was early in his life.  I can't imagine that Merton the mystic or Merton the monk was fully present in that room.  But what if he was?

Did his later students realize they'd been taught by Merton the mystic monk?  Did they go back to their freshman year notebooks and look for stray bits of wisdom?

He didn't go on to become a famous educator, so maybe he wasn't the kind of college professor who would inspire frantic note taking. It was early in his life--maybe he didn't have the choice insight that he would display later.

Maybe Merton was boring.  Maybe he stumbled through lectures.  I'm imagining that he taught literature classes, since it was the 1930's, and we didn't have the same kinds of Composition classes that we have now.  What poems would he have taught?  I'm thinking about his comments on essays.

Maybe he was like the musician Sting, who also taught school before he became famous for something else.  I remember reading the liner notes to Bring on the Night; in the note for "I Burn for You," Sting remembers setting his students to their writing tasks while he worked on songs for the gigs in his early band years.  He said that the students passed their A levels, he got his songs written, and everyone was happy.

There, too, I wondered if his students ever made the connection between the later Sting and their early English teacher.  I was early in my English teaching career and fascinated by this approach.  I, too, tried to use every scrap of spare time for my own projects.

I like these pictures of the early years of people famous for their use of language.  I need that reminder that we're all human.  Merton was not born a mystic.  He became one over the course of many decades.  Along the way, he had the same sorts of experiences as many of us will have.

It gives me hope that we're all on a path that will only make sense later, perhaps only after we're dead and biographers begin to tell the tale.  It gives me hope that nothing will be for naught, nothing will be wasted.

And if you need a Friday writing prompt, imagine Merton or Sting as your English instructor.  I had a wonderful time yesterday writing a poem from the perspective of the student in the Merton classroom.

From there, it's a short hop to all sorts of wonderful fictional possibilities.  Ernest Hemingway as your P.E. teacher, especially if you're an awkward 9th grade girl.  Flannery O'Connor teaching Home Ec, particularly in the late 1970's when everyone, boys and girls alike, took both Home Ec and Shop.

Yes, we could have fun with this!

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