My adult life and career began, I think, on a snowy January afternoon in 1979, as I stood in line to register for the second semester of my freshman year at Notre Dame. I had experienced a disastrous first semester, coming within .023 points of academic probation or, I imagined, worse.
I say “experienced,” which implies passivity and blamelessness on my part; I should say “perpetrated.” I was negotiating a lethal combination of arrogance and immaturity, compounded by what I then described as boredom. Who needed calculus? Psychology had no relevance for me. Economics? Yawn. I, with what I considered to be my extensive credentials and better taste, disagreed with my music professor, and as for ROTC . . . I was doing all right in ROTC, but with a certain detachment I was later to find out the colonel had already noticed.
I came back to school in January, mostly out of pride and a lack of any other viable alternative. My father had spoken ominously on several occasions during the Christmas break of “getting a job and learning about life” — by which he meant a grinding job at the mill where I worked for several summers. He also had discoursed at length on “not needing to spend all this money,” “junior college” and the relative educational bargains to be found at any number of public universities. He couldn’t understand me. My high school career had been glorious; I was the first in my family to have had the opportunity to go to college; I had even managed to receive a high grade that fall in my freshman humanities seminar — and here I was putting my future, the future he had worked so hard to build, at risk.
I could not imagine going into manual labor or restarting at a junior college, but I could feel these alternatives every time my dad looked at me across the dinner table or passed me in the upstairs hallway, every time I asked for the keys to the car. And I could feel them as I stood on line in the foyer of O’Shaughnessy, waiting for an associate dean to review my cards and approve my spring schedule.
The dean I drew that day was Donald Sniegowski ’56. His being an associate dean, I would later learn, was something of a service position for the University; his “real job” was as a well-respected professor of Victorian literature in the English Department. He had also been a varsity basketball and baseball player at Notre Dame and a Rhodes Scholar. All I saw that day was a deeply serious, if not dour, countenance that appeared to be approaching its limits of tolerance for the vagaries of teenage conceit. He took my card, looked it over with a squint and then glanced up at me: “Walton,” he said evenly, “Are you the one that writes?”
My immediate thought, and one that would plague me for the rest of that day and a good portion of the next, was that I was going to have to look into ending my ROTC engagement and entering directly into enlisted service. Because something else I had been doing first semester — along with contemplating my existential being — while I should have been studying calculus, psychology, economics and the rest, was writing what I took to be incendiary columns for the student newspaper, The Observer, and the student magazine, The Scholastic. In these, shall we call them, essays, I was holding forth on such topics as my views of race issues on campus, punk rock, Mayor Daley, movies and any number of other subjects that were not exactly relevant to my matriculation at Notre Dame and the business at hand. I looked at Dean Sniegowski and answered with a meek “yes”; he looked at my transcript for what seemed a long time, then checked his calendar with his assistant and said to me, “Come to my office tomorrow at one o’clock.” That was it.
Our meeting the next afternoon was relatively matter-of-fact. He asked me what I thought of Notre Dame, what I thought of my first semester performance and why I thought I had done so poorly. I answered tentatively, unsure of what he wanted me to say. He then looked at me and said, “There are some people on this campus who can help you develop that talent of yours, and I’m going to see that you get in touch with them.”
I have been thinking a lot lately about the word “pedagogy,” which my dictionary defines, simply enough, as “the art of science of teaching.” It is derived from the word “pedagogue,” which these days often carries pejorative or negative connotations. But the roots of the word, from the Greek, are “pais,” or child, and “agein,” to lead. To lead a child.
As unlikely as it sounds from those early beginnings, I have become a teacher myself. It occurs to me that I am nearing the age many of my professors were when I attended Notre Dame, and I am as bogged down by concerns of health, house, family and work as I know they must have been, all of which have a weight you cannot control or, as a young man, imagine. My professors, it now occurs to me, were people other than myself who were caught up in their own lives, their own triumphs and tragedies. It is hard for a 20-year-old to think of that. I was convinced back then that no one had ever had the thoughts I had; no one had the same feelings, the same hopes and dreams and wild confusions and doubts. I walked around conducting imaginary symphonies in my mind that no one else could hear.
If there is a purgatory for those sins of my freshman year, it is having students parade through my office now who are themselves arrogant and lost and unwilling, at first, to listen. As a professor, you hear so many excuses from students, so many different versions of self-contented existential angst, that it is a constant challenge — one I myself worry that I too often fail to meet — to see each student as an individual, with his or her own story. My experience as a teacher has taught me to appreciate in ways I could never have imagined the deep humanity of Sniegowski and the many other professors under whom I would come to study. To lead a child. To husband that energy, and to sustain it, as they continued with their own work and their own lives. Somehow Professor Sniegowski and those other teachers found it in themselves to see in me, a very young black man from Aurora, Illinois, a factory worker’s son and the grandchild of sharecroppers, a potential scholar, a potential teacher, a potential writer. Most importantly, I think, they were willing to see potential.
For the next several semesters Sniegowski would assist me with my schedule, often picking the classes and professors, and in general helping me to build the foundation of an undergraduate career that would lead to graduate school and adult success and keep me from slipping into what I now see would have been an almost certain end of my collegiate life. One year after that fateful first meeting with Sniegowski I entered my first creative writing class at Notre Dame, studying the art of poetry with Professor John Matthias. The previous fall I had taken a class with Professor James Robinson that acquainted me with the various forms of literary expression, poetry, fiction and drama, and I had already worked with Matthias in his legendary — among English majors, through the reading list of more than 20 books — Poetry 305, and after more struggle, survived. Survived quite well, as a matter of fact, with a deeply appreciated — by me — A minus.
But a poetry workshop is quite different. In a creative writing class the students read and critique each others’ work, and in many ways put their very psyches and souls out for others to examine. I had presented a poem to much congratulations the first week and, reverting back to form, was sure I was on my way to The Norton Anthology; it couldn’t be much more than five years ahead. The poem I had presented was angry and forceful, written in a style meant to be political, engaged and provocative. Matthias led us through the poem with seriousness and candor and congratulated me on its unique intensities. The next week I brought another poem just like it, only this time, Matthias looked it over coldly, smiled and said, “Now, we’ve done that already, haven’t we?” and put it aside.
I don’t know what he intended by doing this and I’ve never discussed it with him, but after years of thinking about it, I’ve come to see it as a masterful moment of teaching. I was the only African-American student in the class, and it might have been easy for me to cast myself as the class “rebel,” a role that would have been much easier to fill than that of a more — I search for the right word here — sincere seeker. Without embarrassing me unduly, Matthias sent me a serious message about my future as a poet: push yourself, reach for more, master all of the poetic tradition. Though he showed himself skilled in the gentle art of pedagogy, “leading children,” he did not patronize me. He did not humor me, or condescend, and I have come to see this as one of the greatest gifts any teacher ever gave me, as one of the greatest gifts any teacher can give a student. I was freed from playing a role in the class, one I was too young and naive even to be aware of. Suddenly I could go wherever my interests led me — and that included writing as honestly and toughmindedly as I could about race in America, but it also included learning to see myself in the work of the 17th-century Japanese haiku master Basho, the legendary German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the great American contemporary, who happened to be Anglo, James Wright.
Matthias and I would continue to squabble — argue — over a great many things the next three years. I cringe to think how I must have sounded to him — sophomoric? — as I now wrangle with my own students. I would got to office hours full of my latest discovery and proceed to tell him why we should be studying this or castigate him for “keeping us” from that: one example that sticks in my mind has to do with his habit of regularly sending his students to the library to listen to Benjamin Britten or Ralph Vaughan Williams or some other boring — that word again — classical composer; I asked him why we couldn’t study pop music, stuff we were interested in. I remember one afternoon in Matthias’s office in the basement of the library, finally getting him to concede that one particular singer I liked was “good for her idiom”; the lesson came two years later, when, at a party for a visiting writer thrown at Matthias’s house, I discovered several LPs by that very artist among his collection. He had a strategy as a teacher, one that continually led outward, forcing students away from natural — and often easy — interests and affinities and into unknown realms where they might, just might, learn something.
One aspect of the academic community at Notre Dame that has stayed with me is my sense of its interrelatedness, based upon mutual respect. In some ways, I felt like a very fortunate relay baton being passed ever forward: Sniegowski handed me off to Matthias, who then passed me along to professors Robinson and Sandeen. I am simplifying here, of course, because there were several others, professors Lynn Thiesmeyer, Joseph Buttigieg ’68, Joseph Duffy and, in the philosophy department, Larry Simon and Milton Wachsberg, whom I remember as contributing mightily to my coming to see literature and the world in new and significant ways. And, I must stress, this was only my experience. There were as many more professors in the English department alone of great accomplishment and reputation with whom I did not work, and in some cases never met. I think it was entirely possible to come up another side of the mountain at Notre Dame and work with a completely different set of people; I want to underscore that I am describing the happy accidents — and perhaps not accidents — that led to the particular path that I ended up following.
I think now about my sitting in the office of James Robinson, whom I would later realize was the author of one of the great textbooks of language and dialectic, The Scope of Rhetoric, breathtaking for its sheer erudition — drawing from Cicero to Quintilian to Shakespeare to Hazlitt to Thoreau to Abraham Lincoln to Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner. I think of Robinson’s patience, which I did not at the time realize was patience, in listening to me for hours on end expound on my own undeveloped, yet endlessly assured, theses; I think of how he gently, yet constantly, prodded me to be precise; to be elegant; to consider that there was more than one way of seeing things.
Professor Wachsberg in the philosophy department was equally important to my development in this fashion— if somewhat more forceful in his approach. I realize now that Sniegowski or Simon — whom I had met through Sniegowski — must have forwarded some of my articles to him, because the entire focus of his time with me was spent trying to break me of my tendency to make facile arguments, to get carried away on the gusts of syllogism and tautology. Wachsberg would ask me to write a position paper on something that he knew, from my articles, I strongly believed in. He would read my response the next day in his office, without comment — but then would tell me to write another paper, arguing for the exact opposite position, to be turned in the next week. Back then I was frustrated, impatient with this approach; I had become quite comfortable in my own views, and it was at times distributing to have to consider the alternatives. But I cannot overstate the value this lesson had for me. In addition to teaching me how to argue, how to debate, how to deconstruct, Wachsberg also, in this fashion, taught me a much larger and far more important lesson — to be aware always that there was a world outside of my own thoughts and beliefs.
During the second semester of my junior year, I started, through the good offices of Sniegowski and Matthias, to study poetry under the guidance of Professor Emeritus Ernest Sandeen. Sandeen has come to represent to me the exemplar of the Notre Dame professor of that time: learned, concerned, skilled at teaching and modest perhaps to a fault. Sandeen was a poet of the old school; let your work do your talking, stay away from the blandishments and self-deceptions of the “poetry business” as he sometimes laughingly called it. I would go over to his house on Ponsha Street on Wednesday afternoons, we would talk into the evening about this writer or that, about my poems, sometimes about his.
By this time he was into his 70s and had the sort of perspective I found boggling. Here was a man who was 52 years old the year I was born, a veteran of the Great Depression and of World War II; to listen to him talk about what he had seen come and go, in the arts, in contemporary history, in life, was an immense privilege I have not yet fully assimilated. Sandeen could give you the kind of advice it might take you 10 or 20 years to figure out; mostly it concerned patience, carefulness, staying the course. I remember one evening he took me into his library — this always amazed me, he had a library, with stacks and everything, in his house — and pulled down some books, Best Poems of 1918,1919,1920, and so on, and asked me to look at the tables of contents. Then he asked me how many of the names I recognized; there were a few, regional celebrities like Trumbull Stickney whose importance as artists had faded if their names lingered; then he asked me if T.S. Eliot was in any of the anthologies? Was Ezra Pound? Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, any of the others who were living and writing in those years and whom we now consider to be our literary treasures? The answer was no.
Sandeen was making a point, telling me to slow down, not to concern myself with that which was beyond my control, namely recognition and accomplishment. The only judge for any artist is time, and Sandeen felt that to involve one’s self in anything other than trying to do good work for its own sake was hubristic, at best. I think about this lesson in terms of the other professors I was — and I don’t use this word lightly — blessed to know and be apprenticed to, and I am struck by the consistent theme of modesty that runs throughout their lives, a modesty that allowed them to see, in the words of the philosopher Richard Rorty, “strange people as fellow sufferers,” and to do their jobs, which, painful as it is for me to admit — as I was one of the led — leading children. They taught me that art, and life, were about process, incremental improvement, keeping a steady and clear eye upon the little things. They taught me that there was a world beyond what I could imagine, a world outside of me. In so doing, they freed me to pursue whatever I could imagine because what there was to be learned and done would always be bigger than whatever I had just completed. They taught me more than the humanities; they taught me, with their various styles, beliefs and techniques, the beginnings of my humanity.
These lessons can be hammered home no more fiercely than by my realization that as a professor of writing and of literature I am following in their footsteps and now hold, in all senses, that trust: It is now my job to lead, one which I wonder — as I sigh with weariness at yet another sophomore sitting across from me in my office and informing me of all that I am unaware — if I am up to.
Another moment has stayed with me for more than 20 years: fall semester, junior year, which would make the year 1980, in one of the large classrooms in the old chemical engineering building, a structure that had just been replaced by Stepan Hall. Professor Joseph Duffy, a white-haired man in his 60s, was charged with teaching us “Modern Poetry,” or something like that, and one of the books he slated for us to purchase was the old Knopf edition of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Duffy and I had developed by then a kind of good-natured kidding relationship, based on his interest in my attempts at writing; he would see me around campus, wave sardonically and say “So how is the poet this morning?” but in a tone of voice and with a smile that made me aware that he was encouraging, and not mocking, me.
I was confident enough of our relationship by then to decide that a little bit of a turnabout was fair play, so in class that day I raised my hand and chided Duffy for requiring us to buy such an expensive, hardcover book we only needed for three weeks or so in the course. He dismissed me without even looking up from his papers: “Mr.Walton, you will own this book for the rest of your life." That book, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, is here on my desk as I write this essay, and even after all these years and everywhere I’ve been, I still find myself wondering how he knew that.
Anthony Walton is the author of Mississippi: An American Journey and the co-editor, with Michael Harper, of The Vintage Book of African American Poetry: 1750-2000. He received a 1998 Whiting Writer’s Award, and his poems and essays have appeared regularly in The New York Times, Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly, among other magazines.