You know you’re nearing the finish line of what’s seemed to be several geologic periods in a Notre Dame classroom when you begin to remember the past in generations rather than years.
A student came up before class not long ago and inquired, “Can my mother sit in this afternoon?” At the end of the session, the visitor stopped by the lectern to say hello — and to report that in her college days she had taken a couple of courses I taught back then, nearly (gulp) three decades earlier.
Whenever a student asks whether a parent or friend can occupy an extra desk in our classroom, the request represents a small vote of confidence. Behind it, too, is the modest expectation that the next 75 minutes might be diverting for someone not concerned about a grade.
Sometimes, though, the unexpected occurs. Last spring a student brought her father to a seminar meeting. He not only had read the assigned novel but also energetically contributed to the discussion, staying afterward to talk more.
As my time at Notre Dame lengthens, it’s not just current or former students who leave their mark and linger in my memory. A few students, those encountered through fortuitous yet fluky chance, also spring to mind.
For nearly a decade, I’ve engaged in what’s often seemed a fool’s errand to compose a book about a series of events that occurred a century ago. Newspapers of that period are critical in doing the research and telling the story — but, sad to say, I face a gargantuan hitch in fact-finding.
Microfilm machines and I are mortal enemies. Unfailingly, once I thread the roll through the projector apparatus, the page ends up upside down and backward. A couple years ago, as I toiled amid these devilish instruments in the basement of the Hesburgh Library, a nearby student quickly realized my dilemma, if not desperation, and kindly offered to help.
Not long after he embarked on this mission of mercy, he mentioned that he needed to leave soon for an appointment. Though I kept urging him to go, he spied the two additional rolls I wanted to check.
Pity can be an ennobling emotion, and human charity considerably more rewarding. He decided to stay until the job was finished.
Yogi Berra, happily remembered for his baseball days and bons mots, receives credit for remarking, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” That aphoristic wisdom holds true at Notre Dame.
During one bright spring day, I noticed a blind student being led by his German shepherd near DeBartolo Hall. They were walking deliberately on the crowded pathway but then veered off into a grassy spot along the quad.
The student sat down and removed the dog’s harness. For the next few minutes the young man and his canine friend played with wild abandon. At one point the dog jumped up and down, racing in wide circles near his master.
The rambunctious romping was well worth my rubbernecking. Those moments of bliss shattered any stereotype I held of a leader dog being a highly trained animal solely dedicated to business.
When the frolic was over, the student replaced the harness, and the pair returned to the sidewalk, heading purposefully to their destination.
On occasion, and out of the blue, students will go out of their way to share a feeling with someone else they don’t know on campus. It’s as though there’s a common bond of understanding or community and a need for communication.
In the pitch-black darkness of a winter’s evening, I happened to be walking near the entrance of the tunnel into Notre Dame Stadium. A student with a much quicker stride came up next to me and grabbed my arm.
Pointing at the large, illuminated Word of Life (or Touchdown Jesus) mural on the Hesburgh Library, he said: “That never gets old. That just never gets old.”
After testifying with utter sincerity, he walked briskly on, leaving me to ponder the serendipitous encounter.
Yes, I have aged and started to count in generations — but certain things never do seem to grow old.
Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame, where’s he taught since 1980.