Answer the Door, the Truth Is Knocking

Norman Rockwell, "The Young Law Student"

Norman Rockwell, “The Young Law Student”

Lucille Clifton and Willa Cather played a role in our college’s annual awards ceremony this past Friday. Here’s how.

Lucille taught at St. Mary’s for a number of years and her poems are a constant presence on campus. Her “blessing of the boats (at St. Mary’s)” is inscribed in large letters on the wall of the Student Center. Her series of 9-11 poems appear at intervals around the pond lying at the heart of our campus. And a version of “the light that came to lucille clifton” (adapted with her permission) is read each year at the beginning of the ceremony. Here it is in its non-addapted form:

the light that came to lucille Clifton
came in a shift of knowing
when even her fondest sureties
faded away. it was the summer
she understood that she had not understood
and was not mistress even
of her own off eye, then
the man escaped throwing away his tie and
the children grew legs and started walking and
she could see the peril of an
unexamined life.
she closed her eyes, afraid to look for her
but the light insists on itself in the world;
a voice from the nondead past started talking,
she closed her ears and it spelled out in her hand
“you might as well answer the door, my child,
the truth is furiously knocking.

President Joe Urgo alluded both to Lucille’s poem and to Cather’s novel The Professor in his introductory remarks, excerpted below:

Pres. Joe Urgo, Introductory Remarks, Awards Convocation

Well, here we are, at the other end of the academic year.

Today, we gather to celebrate student learning in the myriad ways of its expression and demonstration – in classrooms, in studios and labs, in solitary hours of individual research, in collaborations with others, through aesthetic and creative venues, on athletic courts and playing fields, in shared governance and other co-curricular activities.

We mark as well those singular faculty and staff members whom we see as embodying our very best efforts as a community of learners.

While student learning is our primary mission, we understand that learning is possible only if we conceive of ourselves – all of us, everyone on campus — as at once teachers and learners, in a common endeavor to improve the human condition.

I have been thinking about the class I will offer in the fall, which will focus on the writing of Willa Cather. I want to share with you her description of academic achievement, articulated by a student in a book called The Professor’s House, a student who arrives where he did not think he could:

This was the first time I ever saw it as a whole. It all came together in my understanding, as a series of experiments do when you begin to see where they are leading. Something had happened in me that made it possible for me to coordinate and simplify, and that process, going on in my mind, brought with it great happiness. It was possession. The excitement of my first discovery was a very pale feeling compared to this one.

The character goes on to equate intellectual epiphany with “a religious emotion” for its transformative effect on his life and sensibilities. In the media hustle that seems to characterize the pubic sphere in the contemporary era, it seems wise to stop and consider the supreme importance of what we are doing here, at St. Mary’s College, and what it means to commit oneself to ideas and to the power they hold in human affairs.

And now, on to the awards. An award is a fine thing, and it is given not to have you look back and feel that your work is done, but to encourage you to look forward with the confidence that you have so much more to offer.

Today is where we have reached. What lies ahead?

As we heard from Lucille Clifton, “you might as well answer the door, my child, the truth is furiously knocking.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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