The halls of the DeBartolo classroom building are not easy to navigate when I’m heading to the classroom where I set up shop on Monday and Wednesday afternoons during the fall semester.
Students don’t seem fazed by the traffic flow, the determined currents swirling down corridors, bodies knifing into doorways, popping out of computer labs, all in a rush, no one pausing, balking or making eye contact as they glide effortlessly in the human whitewater.
Even at semester’s end, after three months swimming in these rivers, I make my way — always against the current, up the down staircase, entering as others exit — feeling like a foreigner unschooled in the ways of flocks and herds.
But I like being immersed in these waters — the energy and urgency, the youthful vigor. Rucksacks slung over shoulders. Lean, athletic bodies draped in sweatshirts or parkas. Unkempt, hurried, focused. Bearers of the electronic gadgetry that webs them into their generational cohort, connects them to their moms and dads.
This is not where they are most themselves, but it is where their supple intellects conjoin in action, where scholars profess, where the conversations engage, and the proof and woof and warp of their college education gets stirred. Where the work of the mind grinds its gears.
I glance past open doorways, into boxy rooms and spy chalky blackboards with mathematical formulae diagrammed, sonnets parsed, nations mapped and economic forces networked in spidery brushstrokes.
The rooms are high-tech, and many instructors stand at the control center and orchestrate screens flashing text and image. Other spaces have tables arranged in rectangles to encourage dialogue, ensure face-time among a small band of earnest students and a prof typically holding a single, dog-eared paperback — keeping it spare and close to the bone. Making room for intellectual manna.
This place belongs to the students. From the jammed corridors of DeBartolo to the heart-thumping gyms at Rolfs to the long lines outside the Starbucks in LaFortune.
I knew this when I was a student encountering alumni on football weekends, listening to their tales of Camelot, watching them try to retrieve their youth by pretending they still belonged.
I knew it even better when leaving Notre Dame Stadium after my last game as a student, driving away from campus a few hours after commencement — and not returning the following August but picturing the classrooms and quads, the lakes and ducks carrying on without me. Memories prowling campus like ghosts of Notre Dame past.
I have worked at this university year-round for 35 years. The students come in episodic waves, four-year intervals, nine months out of each year. And yet it is their turf. They are its purpose, what the place is all about . . . despite the value faculty place upon their research, the importance administrators place upon their work, the contributions we all make here.
The quads and campus pathways, the residence halls and common spaces teem with the life they infuse into the landscape. Their music, their clothing, their dreams and trepidations, their cultural accoutrements — the smartphones and laptops and youthful ways of doing business. And the uncharted future of 21st century Planet Earth. The rest of us stand as experienced scouts whose witness just might help these new pioneers explore the unknown terrain of tomorrow. But that world is all theirs too.
For a few months this autumn, in Room 116 DeBartolo, I got to go along for the ride. I shepherded 14 students through a kind of writers’ workshop. We all chipped in stories, created a safe space for talking and swapping and sharing, revealed something of ourselves, risked embarrassment and failure, savored some triumphs and successes, partook — at least briefly — in the writing life.
For 75 minutes two times a week, we off-ramped from those bustling DeBartolo corridors and paused to read and talk and listen and hear from those who had put words in certain order, wanting to say something about life and death and family and what it all means.
I love to teach writing. One of the best things is that when young people write — when they really try to write really well — they make an incision, they open a vein, and you are there to help care for the gift they are making with their words and their heart.
And then one night — rainy, chilled and dark — the final final exam is turned in, and the last student walks out, and I stash the exams and final stories into my book bag and pull on my sweater and my slicker, and I flip off the lights and walk out into the corridor, now dim and nearly empty except for a few students straggling from another classroom, speaking in hushed tones, making their way out into the night.
And I do too, walking across the darkened campus alone, yet happily thankful to have shared the hallways and pathways again this fall.