Looking at the Words from Starched Khaki Trousers, or How I Learned to Read.
by Victor Judge
Vanderbilt Divinity School Monday Forum, February 8, 2010
Among the privileges of my vocation at the Divinity School is that as registrar I become acquainted with each of you as you fulfill the requirements for your degree, or should I serve as your teacher in class, I bear witness to your gifts in interpreting the writings of literary theologians whose themes incarnate the commitments of the School, or as editor of The Spire, I document the contributions you make to the world as alumni/ae of the University.
When Rachelle Barina extended the invitation to serve as a speaker for the Divinity School’s fora, she provided an outline of seven biographical questions for me to address in relation to my vocation, and I should like to to respond to these questions in an essay I have composed for your consideration. As I reflect upon these questions, I realize that if I were to write my autobiography, every footnote, invariably, would have citations to four groups of people whose influences are impressed indelibly upon my vocation:
all the educators under whose tutelage I have been the beneficiary;
the nuns, priests, theologians, and saints who direct my spiritual formation in the Roman Catholic Church;
the characters who emerge from the imaginations of the literary artists whose words I am blessed to read, to
ponder, to speak, and to teach;
the students whose lives, for thirty-two years, intersect with mine.
All the individuals whose names would appear in the autobiography’s index, however, would share in common a single detail: whether we meet in person or on the pages of a manuscript, our relationship begins in a classroom or a lecture hall.
I should like to share with you two significant events that are pivotal in my vocation, and I have titled this essay, “Looking at the Words from Starched Khaki Trousers, or How I Learned to Read.”
On August 21, 1961, a rite of passage occurred that I now interpret as the reason for which I was born. On this Monday morning, I began my formal education at the Mary Sharp School in Winchester, Tennessee. The elementary school had been founded as a women’s college in 1850 by the abolitionist, Mary Sharp, and was the first college in America to confer, upon women, degrees of higher education ranked comparable to the degrees earned by men who matriculated at the southern and eastern colleges. Mary Sharp College also was the first institution of higher learning where women were required to fulfill academic requirements in Latin and in Greek before they were graduated with the baccalaureate. The college’s motto was “Educate the mothers, and you educate the people.” The building in which my formal education would commence was built upon the original foundation of the college; my mother would become a member of the faculty there after I entered grade school, and from the window of her classroom she would hear the racial epithets shouted by the Ku Klux Klan as they protested the integration of the Mary Sharp School, and she would watch as the klansmen erected road blocks to prevent the school buses from transporting her students to their homes.
I was not among the six-year-olds who disliked school or dreaded the third Monday of August; no longer would I be entering the classroom of my imagination, nor would the green-speckled Formica breakfast table serve as my improvised desk for composing and illustrating stories; I was going, officially, to school, and all the necessary rituals for my initiation had been performed: I had passed all the admissions tests and filed all the required medical records; I had packed my book satchel in July on my birthday, but on this morning I conducted a final inspection to insure that my younger brother had not pilfered and claimed any of the contents; my maternal grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, had fitted, altered, and pressed my uniforms, one of which Mother had placed on my bed. Having robed myself after showering, I went to find my mother upon whom I remained dependent to part my hair because she could draw the part to conceal my hereditary cowlick.
I found my mother standing behind the ironing board and weeping as she vigorously pressed my already starched uniform khakis. This scene would be one of the three occasions when I would witness her lose her stoic reserve as a southern lady and show her emotions.
With one hand, my mother sprinkled rain water onto the pant’s creases while the other hand channeled the energy from her 98-pound frame into the iron whose heat would ensure that no amount of activity at recess would allow me to appear wrinkled in public. Flannery O’Connor would have described her posture as “ironing, hell-bent for leather.” Perhaps pressing the trousers was her reluctant imprimatur before yielding to the truth she intuitively had known but could no longer deny: that my life would now be measured in the increments of academic time, a unit of measurement that she, as a teacher, knew would pass very quickly.
In my effort to console her, I said, “I can go by myself; I know where the classroom is, and you have to go teach at your school.”
But she regained her composure and insisted on escorting me to the front door of Mary Sharp before departing for her school. Hand in hand, we walked down the sidewalk leading to the entrance, but as we approached the front door, we had to step upon a wooden boardwalk intended to discourage students from running into the building. As my mother and I stepped onto the walkway, the right high heel of her bone-colored shoes became wedged between two narrow planks; she had to release my six-year-old fingers from her hand so that she could extricate her heel; I continued walking confidently to the front door, turned, waved good bye, crossed the threshold, and ascended the steps to the classroom with a green ribbon on the door handle.
I remember the classroom as a series of geometric lines: the square beige tiles of the linoleum floor upon which the rows of desks and chairs were evenly spaced; a wall of neatly arranged book shelves that faced a wall of metallic grey lockers, the blackboard, upon which lines like those on the pages of our tablets had been drawn for our first penmanship lesson, and a bulletin board boasting three rows of cards—upon which had been methodically written by a hand schooled in the block method of penmanship—our vocabulary words for the first day. With the straight part in my hair, and the un-relaxed vertical creases of my trousers, I was not out of place among all the lines.
Although there would have been other classmates present in the room on that morning, I cannot remember their presence as I stood before the bulletin board and privately recited all the words from our reading primer (the first word was the hyphenated “bow-wow”), but I felt what I now describe as a “sense of place” or a sense of belonging that descended upon me, an intuitive awareness that I would spend my life in rooms of lines. Although I did not have the vocabulary for articulating the effects of this epiphany, I remember feeling older than my chronological years, this sense of place felt heavy, but not oppressive. A romantic sentimentalist, perhaps, would suggest that the calm emanated from the cloud of witnesses who had dedicated their lives to the founding of Mary Sharp College and were transferring the mantle of service to me; but my faith as a Roman Catholic, one who now has a vocabulary beyond a first-grade primer, encourages me to interpret this occasion as the Holy Spirit calling me to my life’s work of study, and three decades of experience have never led me to doubt this interpretation.
I now invite you to transport yourselves imaginatively eleven years and 98.6 miles from the classroom in Mary Sharp School to Room 104 in Jessup Hall on the campus of George Peabody College for Teachers where I would encounter the educator who continues to be my mentor and against whose standards I continue to evaluate my work. I had been assigned to a freshman seminar on formalist literary criticism, and the professor was my academic advisor, Linda Wyman, a scholar who has distinguished herself in the poetics of T.S. Eliot. In anticipation of the first session, we were required to compose and to submit an argument on how a single noun in the final stanza of Robert Hayden’s poem “The Whipping” provided the structural unity for the entire poem. Professor Wyman’s creative intellect and her passionate delivery during the seminar inspired me to believe that I was indeed where I should be for my education; however, when I collected my essay at the end of class and saw the mark I had earned, I felt quite displaced. I had not bothered to read the marginal notations or the commentary Professor Wyman had written; I only saw the grade, a “B,” and for me, that letter may as well have been an “F.” Foolishly believing that my entire vocation as a student of literature resided on the first evaluation of my first course in my first year of college, and that my scholarship would be revoked, I approached Professor Wyman and said, “Professor Wyman, I don’t make B’s,” to which she curtly responded, “And Mr. Judge, I do not sanction mediocrity.” Her statement was a foreshadowing of what I would learn from Flannery O’Connor: the language of grace is not always pleasant to one’s sensibilities.
We were required to conduct the revisions on our essays and deliver them to Professor Wyman’s office the next day before receiving the topic for the next essay—assuming that for me there would be the opportunity for a failed perfectionist to write another essay. There were no creases in my Duckhead khakis on this day because no amount of spray starch could resist the anxiety that arrested me. As I sat across from Professor Wyman, watching her compare my first essay with the revision, as she held her green pilot point pen in one hand and a Kent cigarette in the other, she exhaled and spoke in an unrhymed quatrain:
“You are not looking at the words;
you are not holding the poem;
you have to feel the texture of the lines;
you have to enter the text, repeatedly.”
She then asked me if I knew the poem “Ars Poetica” by the twentieth-century American poet Archibald MacLeish, and of course my grade of “B” was further justified by my having to profess my ignorance of the poem. From memory, Professor Wyman then recited to me:
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown —
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind --
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea --
A poem should not mean
Employing the Socratic method of pedagogy, Professor Wyman then proceeded to guide me, word by word, couplet by couplet, through the poem, and she deconstructed every assumption I held about interpreting art. She taught me how to read critically; she taught me that I had to look at and into the words. But from my relationship to her I also have experienced what I acknowledge as “the graces of revision,” as well as a hospitality that does not compromise academic standards, and I have learned from her that the greatest expression of poverty in one’s vocation is the gift of one’s time.
Whether one is explaining to a third-grader the redundancy of the double negative, or teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a class of public high school seniors who have been collectively dismissed as “not college material,” whether one is persuading an employee of a factory that the study of literature is relevant to his life because his life is a unique, unrepeatable narrative worthy of being told, or the nurse who takes one course a semester on Saturday mornings while she supports her family during the week, or the young postulant or the seminarian, or the graduate students of theology who are discerning their calls and discover corresponding questions and doubts in the poetry of Emily Dickinson—these are among the people who represent the history of my vocation. What we cannot forget in pursuing our vocations is that the most selfless, courageous act is to unite our wills with the Holy Will of God, for it is God who is the Author of our vocations and the One who calls us to service; we are merely the instruments, the conduits who can incarnate the callings. And because the calling is a gift to us, we cannot impose restrictions upon that which we cannot own; we cannot say: I will only teach or serve a congregation or a hospital in a particular geographical region, or I will only teach specific courses to select students. Such an insistence upon selectivity and restrictions results ultimately in a provincial existence or “career” instead of a vocational life. I and my students have learned, in particular from “looking at the words” of Flannery O’Connor, that grace does not respectfully yield to place or to human constructions of time, and we are never allowed to forget that the language of grace is not always as nice as we think grace should be, but there is no moment in the discernment or in the practice when the workings and actions of grace are absent.
When composing this essay, I discovered that if I were to interpret Archibald MacLeish’s poem in the context of each of your lives by substituting the word “vocation” for each reference to “poetry,” then this variation would be my prayer for your vocation:
A vocation, to adopt a phrase from Flannery O’Connor, is an incarnational art—not an abstraction. Like a globed fruit, whose core and essence is known as “flesh,” a vocation has shapes, forms, textures, colors, dimensions; it is palpable to the senses; and it is a source of seeds.
In a vocation, there must be an intimate relationship with silence; we have to be mute, dumb, silent, wordless, because our studies require us to be contemplative, to think intuitively and imaginatively, and to listen to other perspectives instead of always proclaiming our own interpretations. We must assume the posture of active listener and remain a student of the voices of experiential wisdom.
In our vocations we have the privilege and the challenge of working within traditions which we transmit to the next generation; like an old medallion whose original date of minting cannot be discerned and has become “dumb to the thumb” because the medallion’s originally struck textures have become worn by being exchanged through successive generations of hands, we acknowledge the inherent value and incalculable worth of the traditions, and the dumbness of the medallion instills the article with Mystery and invites questions which cannot yield conclusive answers; questions such as those pondered by generations of individuals whose sleeved arms have rested upon the casement ledge until the stones’ original quarried textures have become as worn as the medallion, but their musings and ponderings have not shaken the foundation of the building; the cornerstone remains in place and proves that questions do not destroy faith but strengthen the foundation. Although the work of your vocation will be conducted in a specific place and time, the effects of your work will become liberated from temporality and topicality; the influences of our work, though not immediately measurable by empirical evidence or statistics, will become motionless in time and not restricted or earthbound by the particular attributes of place and time. We cannot control the translations of our work; nor should we desire to govern the translations; our task is to pray for sound, constructive translations.
And as teachers, ministers, and students who contemplate the Holy Mystery of God, we, with our imperfect faculties, have to develop an intimate relationship with metaphor and remember that, whereas in our endeavors we acquire knowledge, Wisdom remains the province of God. In a world of constant mutability, artists, poets, teachers, and theologians offer us figurative comparisons drawn from their participation in the drama of existence; to be called to a vocation does not endow one with the authority to profess the definitive, conclusive interpretation of true grief or true love, but we can provide those whom we serve with analogies; we may compare the absence that characterizes grief to the emptiness of a doorway or to the detachment and descent of a solitary leaf from the tree that is subject to the changes ushered by each season. And we may suggest that love is analogous to two blades of grass that yield to each other, and support each other, and lean into each other until they become indistinguishable, or like the two distinct lights whose rays emanate from two directions in the hemisphere but which merge and also become indistinguishable as the rays shine concertedly upon the water.
Should we believe that we have the definitive answers to the questions of the human condition and no longer need metaphor or Mystery, we dismiss the voice that calls us, and could continue to question us in our vocations. The calling must evolve into a constant dialogue of questions. Were I to say to a student, “The poem means,” and then demand allegiance to a single interpretation by virtue of my authority to bestow a final grade, I have restricted further entrances into the text; I do not allow the text to become motionless in time, to acknowledge its contexts of the past, to allow the words to live in the historical present tense, to be palpable, and to live into the future tense—to reside, and to flourish, within the primary infinitive “to be.” Such an inflexible, uncompromising attitude suggests there is no further need to look at the words.
Discerning a vocation is analogous to composing an essay, such as the one I offer to you: the questions announce themselves unexpectedly, and we find ourselves responding like Eliot’s character, the indecisive J. Alfred Prufrock who asks, “How do I begin? Do I dare?”
We begin by laying down a line of words, and we discover our most important companion is the comma, not the period, but the pauses, those pauses when questions may enter and offer us the grace of revision, and invite us to modify the syntax, and allow our vocations “to be.”
Thank you for your kind attention, and may God bless you in your vocations.
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