Parini: School Year Beginnings

Aug 29, 2013

As a college teacher, I pay attention to the beginning of the school year. It always moves me to see the first year students arrive on campus, eager and tentative and wondering what their next four years will be like.

They understand that they’ve taken a step toward adulthood, and that what happens to them during this crucial time in their lives will matter – or it should.

This year my sense of the new academic year is enhanced – because the youngest of my three sons has left for college at UVM. As I watch him negotiate the beginnings of his first term, with all the excitement and uncertainty that is necessarily involved, I can’t help but think back to my own freshman year. I recall those days as vividly as if they occurred only last week, not half a century ago, but the calendar doesn’t lie.

I was a freshman in 1966, at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Being the first person in my extended family to attend college, I was uncertain about my prospects – to put it mildly. In fact, I was terrified. A few weeks into the first term, I actually wondered if I’d made the right decision. The work seemed very hard, and I thought I lacked the kind of discipline and focus it would take to push through four years of study.

One morning in late September, I sat on a wooden bench overlooking a lovely stretch of the campus. It was about seven a.m. – rather early for me to be up and about, but I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly I became aware of a presence looming behind me. I turned to see a late middle-aged man, who asked if he could sit with me. I said of course. He introduced himself as Roald Bergethon, the college president. He was on his way to his office, and he’d seen me sitting alone. Was I a freshman, he wondered?

I admitted to this, and he asked how it was going. When I told him frankly about my uncertainties, he didn’t try to persuade me of anything. He simply asked what I was reading. I told him about an essay by E.B. White I’d read for my English class, and soon found myself eagerly talking about White with him. When he left – after maybe ten minutes – I felt strangely at ease, and happy to move forward with my studies. The personal connection had made a huge difference for me – as it does with many students.

I often think of a line by James Garfield, who attended Williams College and studied with the famous president of Williams, Mark Hopkins. Garfield famously defined a college education as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” That’s pretty much the bones of the thing: a good teacher, a student, and a log.

So as the school year starts around the country, I hope there will be many good teachers, with eager students and solid logs for them to sit on.