A new college semester is about to get underway, and in addition to the usual composition
courses on my slate, I’ll be teaching an Intro to Literature class. Many of you, my friends, both write and teach, and being able to make a life founded on the magic of language is something we are grateful for; however, quite a few of our students in introductory courses are far less thrilled. Some will be bored or have attitude, and it’s easy to get lost in those reactions – but for the sake of everyone in the class, we can’t let ourselves do that.
I learned this lesson early.
In my second year of college teaching, I was assigned my first literature class – American lit. I was psyched. I took a New Criticism approach, having students interpret the text through close reading, with the idea that the meaning was contained within the walls of the work. To make matters even better, the class was fantastic: Engaged, open-minded, curious.
Except for one student. This fellow sat in the back with his head against the wall, eyes closed, ball cap pulled down to shade the upper part of his face. He didn’t turn in assignments, and he never participated, but he came to every class and didn’t disturb anyone. With so many eager students in the class, I just let him be.
One evening, the class was working through Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” especially the words “dark and deep,” and they were arriving at all the standard critical interpretations: depression, thoughts of suicide, holding our problems inside ourselves, and the simple pleasures like a snowstorm. Then I heard a hand hit a wall. The disengaged student (I confess, I never learned his name) still had his eyes closed but his hand had smacked the back wall and remained raised. So, I called on him.
He said, “The narrator’s Santa Claus.”
Since I thought the fellow was mocking the poem, the class and/or me, I replied a bit sharply, “Okay. Support that interpretation.”
He said (without ever opening his eyes or referring to the book, which he didn’t have): “The guy’s going from town to town on the “darkest evening of the year,” that’s the Winter Solstice near Christmas, and anyway, Santa Claus would think of it as dark because it’s so busy. He has a horse, not a reindeer, but horse fits better and isn’t as obvious. The horse is confused because it’s used to only stopping at houses to deliver presents. The poem says ‘a farmhouse’ not ‘its farmhouse’ or ‘my farmhouse’ which would mean the horse was used to stopping at different people’s homes. The guy wants to rest, but he has promises to keep to all the little brats who wrote him letters and sat on his lap after Thanksgiving. And he still has a long way to go and a lot of packages to deliver before he gets to sleep. It’s Santa Claus.”
It had been my stance throughout the semester that any interpretation that can be proven by using only the words in the text is a valid interpretation. If I told the fellow what I thought of his interpretation – that it was ludicrous – I would be going against my own rules. I had a hunch he knew this, that he was laying a trap for me.
The class sensed this, too, and they were waiting for me to respond. There was a sudden air of tension in the room.
“Well explained,” I remember saying. “Although your interpretation is much lighter than what Frost usually tackles in his poems, it comes strictly from the text, so it should be considered as seriously as any other.”
Several students nodded, but the fellow didn’t say anything. The tension left the room, and we moved on. For the rest of the term, the fellow didn’t say anything else. He never submitted any of the required papers, and he failed. I never saw him again.
But I never forgot him.
Nearly 30 years later, I’m preparing for a new semester, and I’m thinking about him. I’ve had plenty of other memorable students in the meantime: brilliant students and writers who have gone on to do good work. But this fellow reminds me that we all see the world differently and as teachers and writers, if we become too married to our view of the world, we end up working against what we are supposed to be doing: teaching and guiding people to think for themselves.