Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Memorizing ... Realizing ...

On memorizing poems by Emily Dickinson ...

I don't recall that I read anything by Emily Dickinson in high school--though it's very possible that the teachers assigned things I didn't read (shame on me); it's also possible that I've just plain forgotten, my memories of those days somewhat dominated by sports, school plays, friends, my general cluelessness, my abiding shame for some (much? most?) of my behavior.

But I do have memories of Miss Emily at Hiram College. I took freshman English (English 101) in the summer before I began full-time as a frosh at Hiram. I was living at home (my father taught at the college), and my parents wanted me to get a head start on college. So every day that summer term of 1962 I walked up Hiram's Everest (the hill just north of the college on Rt. 700) and sat in English 101 taught by Prof. Charles F. McKinley. I've written here before about him--and about our anthology that summer, Interpreting Literature (which I still have), so I'll not say much, other than to note that there were quite a few Emily Dickinson poems in the book, and every single one of them puzzled me.

I was also frightened every day. I was experiencing that terror that most of us feel when we move to a new level or situation: Do I belong here? What if I fail? These are questions I asked when I left kindergarten for first grade, sixth grade for junior high, junior high for high school, high school for college, college for grad school; they are questions I asked when I changed teaching jobs--in fact, they are questions I asked in some fashion every day of my career.

But I was especially afraid in English 101. Dr. McKinley--whom I sort of knew (my older brother had his classes; my father was a colleague)--was a small, dapper man (among the very few men I've known whom dapper really fits), but very--what?--intimidating to a young intellectual phony like me. I had not done much work in high school, had gotten by on sort of a native facility that had not really fooled my teachers--or earned their respect. I hadn't read very much (well, except for YA biographies of Jim Bowie, Daniel Boone, and others of their ilk), had not written very much. I knew I was not ready for college. But there I was ... English 101, where I wrote one assigned paper--"The Artist's Concern for Human Values"--in an absolute fog of ignorance. (I didn't know what a "human value" was--a minor inconvenience for a writer.)

Prof. McKinley was intellectual, wry, and impossible to fool. He wore a blazer and tie every day even in the blaze of summer in a wonderful old building, Hinsdale Hall (R.I.P.), that had no air-conditioning. That summer, when one of us would say something particularly inane, he would reply, "Bull roar, Mr. Dyer." (Yes, professors then called us "Mr." and "Miss"--no "Ms." was yet in currency.) Bull roar. We all knew what that meant: bullshit--a word impossible to say in a 1962 Hiram College classroom.

Hinsdale Hall
I should say that I was also terrified of my classmates. I was certain they would be far more brilliant and prepared than I--but pretty soon, after a number of bull roars had echoed around the room after they spoke, I knew I was in good company. And, a week or so into the course, I learned something else: Most of the folks were in that room because they had failed English 101 during the previous year and had to repeat (and pass) so they could return in the fall. (Remember those days? When frosh English was the "flunk out course" in colleges? The sink-or-swim philosophy of those days is long gone.)

Anyway, every now and then Dr. McKinley would have us turn to an Emily Dickinson poem--which he would read aloud. (He loved to read aloud and had a sonorous voice that made the words seem fresh from Olympus. I think he read a lot in class because the words of Dickinson and Joyce and others were far preferable to his ears than the students' bull roar.) And right from the git-go I was puzzled by Emily Dickinson.


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