Math was a mystery, never more so than in fall 1970. Freshman calculus. Mr. Peebles was the teacher. He would execute formulae on the chalkboard — his back to us — effortlessly computing, transmuting, unpacking their numeric secrets in an elegant, clinical metamorphosis. It all seemed logical and reasonable as he performed the dance of x and y, variables and integrals. But the goods in his brain did not transfer into mine. Put chalk or pencil in my hand and the formula stared back at me with the same opacity that I encounter when looking under the hood of a car at an engine gone bad.
So it was during that first exam. I scanned the four sheets of problems and diddled long enough that my early exit would not seem abrupt. I remember walking through the large room in which four sections of first-year mathematicians — heads bowed, pencils scratching out equations — calculated on.
A few days later Mr. Peebles scolded us for our dismal performance. “This is college,” he announced, “and if you don’t shape up and get serious, you won’t make it here. In fact,” he added, “you can be certain that one in three of you will fail this course. So just look on each side of you. One of you three will not make it. Count on that.”
I had scored 12 out of 50 on that exam. So I alerted the strangers sitting beside me. “Don’t worry,” I told them. “I’ve got our threesome covered.”
She asked me to stay after class. Ms. Ciske. She was a graduate student teaching Freshman Comp & Lit. I had gotten another bad grade. So as everyone else shuffled out of the congested O’Shaughnessy Hall classroom, I stayed in my seat. She wanted to know if I knew why I kept getting bad grades. I didn’t tell her I had lately been complaining to roommates about her.
She talked about topic sentences and thesis statements, about reading a text and mining it for meaning, and about making a case for what I’d found, presenting evidence and arguments from the bones buried in the text — an exposition of the author’s intentions. Or maybe just your own theories and conclusions, she allowed, but backed up with documentation. She talked about writing with discipline and clarity.
Stop with all the BS-ing, she said, the hyperbole and the blah-blah-blah. This stuff you think is so creative. Just so many flowery words. Making it up as you go. This isn’t the place for that. It’s fine if you want to try to write that way. But somewhere else. Not in here.
Somehow she said all this with kindness in her voice.
And I was listening.
I still have the paper I wrote for the final in that class: an intelligent deliberation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The novella came to mind a few years later when I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. I also kept a paper I wrote for another class about the meaning of the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and another on the importance of trees in Willa Cather’s work. And I thought of Ms. Ciske decades later when I ran across this quote from the English writer Julian Barnes: “Showing off is part of ambition; but now that we are old, let us have the confidence to speak simply.”
What I remember clearest from Tom Werge’s class on Mark Twain was the professor’s little-boy son sitting, squirming, in the back of class, as Scandinavianly blond as his mop-haired father and wearing a Chicago Cubs cap. We spent the semester on that great American writer, reading Twain’s short stories and yarns, his fiction, essays and letters, delighting in the humorist’s lancing wit and his sagacious skewering of human nature, enlightened by his sense of racial justice, surprised by the grouchy theological creations of his later years. We read The Catcher in the Rye, too, comparing Holden Caulfield to Huck Finn, the bright but disaffected youth caught between the innocence of childhood and the corruptions of adulthood, the individual versus society.
I did a big paper for Werge on the meaning of the river in Huck Finn, contrasting life rafting the river against the world of social proprieties on shore. In red ink Werge wrote that he liked what I had said, but he also liked my having written the piece in Huck’s voice. Calling upon my grasp of dialect and colloquialism from growing up in the South, I let it fly. He said he’d like to talk with me about it and suggested I visit during office hours.
I kept the paper but had no intention of talking with so intelligent a person. What would we talk about? What would I have to say? I would only waste his time.
Joseph X. Brennan brought us to his house for class: a semester of Willa Cather, whose splendid fiction so beautifully conveyed the human spirit of the pioneer plains. The five of us came by car each Monday night and sat at the feet of the professor in his upstairs study as he sipped sherry and lectured at length on Cather’s art. Poor man. He tried getting us to talk. But we were as responsive as turtles in their shells (even when he offered alcohol from his cabinet). Besides, we were enthralled listening as he unearthed the gems in that week’s reading. His lectures were brilliant — although the third hour could drag on.
Each week on the drive home we swore that next week we would come really prepared, and someone would step up, and we’d help this guy out by discussing the books that we really did enjoy reading. But no one broke the ice.
Professor Brennan summoned me to his library office when he said he needed to narrow the focus of the 25-page term paper I had proposed — Willa Cather’s sense of nature. Too broad, he counseled, telling me my topic would be trees in Cather’s work. “Trees?” I said. “Twenty-five pages?” This single paper would constitute the entire semester’s grade.
Then he did it again. Pulling My Antonia and The Professor’s House from his cluttered bookshelves, he pointed to the text where a flowering fruit tree in Nebraska symbolized fertility and the earth’s bounty, where a scrub pine in the Southwest signified the gritty determination to hang tight against dispiriting elements. Reading aloud, gaining momentum, he went to Song of the Lark and O Pioneers! and talked about giant, leafy, fluttering cottonwoods and what they meant to people on the flat and tree-scarce plains, how they grew near water sources and towered like spires over the landscape.
Two years later, when I first drove west across those rolling, golden prairies, I noticed how rare were trees, and how cottonwoods did nestle into creek beds and gullies. In parched eastern Wyoming cottonwoods clustered around Powder River and Crazy Woman Creek, names I knew from a book Father John Dunne, CSC, ’51 had recommended to me — Black Elk Speaks. Over the years I made 36 drives across that dry and horizontal landscape, and each time I thought of Dunne and trees and Joe Brennan and his love for Cather and the enthusiasm he brought to sharing that love with us. I recalled those nights in the professor’s study, remembering what I had learned there. A cottonwood stands tall in my backyard today.
John Dunne paced when he talked. He’d stop, pausing mid-sentence, gripped in thought, turning, then striding in the other direction as his words, too, headed elsewhere — like he was chasing ideas on the wing, too shapeless and ethereal to capture in words. It was as if the Holy Cross priest were invoking the lecture from thoughts and notions rustling around inside of him. Or hovering feather-like just overhead. Spontaneous revelation. Epiphanies shared.
The classroom was full of people, some standing on the peripheries — undergrads and grad students, adults, visitors, an amalgam of folks caught by the spirit, following Dunne as he led us down his path of discovery. There were no exams; it didn’t matter. We all took notes like we were gathering fireflies in a jar.
Two semesters senior year I imbibed, one class on autobiography and another on dying — that he said was really about asking how one should live, knowing life inevitably leads to death. Dunne pulled his theology from all over the place, essentially Catholic but exhilaratingly catholic — mystics, poets, saints and sinners, philosophers, composers, shamans, priests. The Razor’s Edge, Report to Greco, Letters to a Young Poet and Simone de Beauvoir’s masterpiece, A Very Easy Death. Life’s purpose was a spiritual journey toward God, seeking the path of the heart’s desire. He made it all so compelling — suggesting that our daily preoccupations and travails mattered less than the unseen, subterranean currents that ultimately gave life its meaning.
Awkward and self-effacing in front of us, he shepherded us along, dispensing clues and truths and signs to look for, a sketchy kind of roadmap for assorted passages toward higher purpose, if not trails to eternal callings. Still, no one thought it funnier than he did when he told us he had received his letter of acceptance to clown school at the place that trains circus performers — figuring his application had been some kind of goofy student prank.
A few years later I gave Chip Naus ’81 a John Dunne book when he joined the Catholic Church. It was the book the priest was writing when I took his classes. I didn’t know then that his books were damn near unreadable. Even John’s brother Patrick ’60 said so. But the gifts he pulled out, polished and handed us — as a theological acrobat on the high-wire each class — have stayed with me ever since.
The class met shortly before noon in a small room in the Main Building, back when the place had the feel of a needy parochial school. Patchy linoleum floors, wood-framed windows rattling in winter winds and posts holding up ceilings and blocking views of the teacher. In a room full of boys, Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag ’73Ph.D., one of the few female faculty members back then, quietly altered our line of sight.
I don’t remember the name of the course; I don’t recall the readings. What I remember is Madonna Kolbenschlag — and how she posed peculiar, disarming concepts. She challenged tradition, tested conventional wisdom. She made us rethink the things we’d always known — and known so confidently, known to be so naturally and everlastingly true. In a room full of boys, in the wake of Vatican II and the social upheavals of the Woodstock era, she had us grinning nervously as she took us unfamiliar places fetchingly perturbing.
We would learn later that she was a feminist in a very male world, a nun with different conceptions of God and the author of the acclaimed Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye — a book in the works that semester with us as she deconstructed fairy tales and folklore, Disney princesses and a woman’s place and power. We reassessed the storylines and stereotypes, the depictions and tilted dynamics between men and women that I had never seen refracted as through her lens. I liked the energy of that disruptive illumination. I liked it, too, that semester of abnormal psych with Chris Anderson and the course on Far Eastern religions with Norman Girardot.
John Dunne talked about the concept of “passing over” — seeing as if through the eyes of the believer, not as an observer outside the vision, as the only way to understand another’s thinking. I liked doing that each semester, and then incorporating some new stuff into my own belongings to carry with me forward.
About five years later I had a little office in the Main Building down the hall from the Kolbenschlag classroom. I had started working in University communications. Chip Naus would stop to visit. He was a student from my hometown in Louisiana. We talked about his classes and how things were in Shreveport. Chip and his roommates would store stuff in my basement over the summers — dressers and chairs, boxes of books and winter clothes. He surprised me one day when he said he was becoming Catholic, and would I be part of the sacraments of initiation. Four of us were in the Log Chapel that day: Chip, me, a friend of Chip’s named Steve Reifenberg ’81, and Father Jim Burtchaell, CSC, ’56, who performed the ceremony.
I knew Burtchaell a little, had interviewed him a half-dozen times for stories I wrote. He was smart, tall, sophisticated, eloquent, stylish and lordly. He had an apartment attached to old Holy Cross Hall, and one day, as we strolled around Saint Mary’s Lake, he asked about my beliefs. When I fumbled out a jumbled answer, he stopped, literally looked down his nose at me and said, “My, you are primitive, aren’t you.”
Shortly after graduation Steve Reifenberg taught school then worked at an orphanage in Santiago, Chile, and started writing. By then I was at the magazine and happy to accept several stories he sent me. Steve wrote many more stories and turned them into a book, Santiago’s Children.
John Dunne led us down his path of discovery. There were no exams; it didn’t matter. We all took notes like we were gathering fireflies in a jar.
Steve was running programs in Latin America for Harvard when our paths crossed again on a campus sidewalk one football Friday. We talked for a bit, catching up on life and work and what’s in the next issue. I told him I was looking to do a cover story on global health and daydreaming of somebody like the economist Jeffrey Sachs or maybe even the physician Paul Farmer to write it. They were probably out of our league, I said. “I know Paul Farmer,” Steve said, speaking of the subject of Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and the director of the international medical network Partners in Health. “He wrote the foreword for my book.”
Because of Steve, who is now the senior strategic adviser and a faculty fellow at Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Farmer did write that cover story.
Chip Naus would become a lawyer back home. Two daughters graduated from Notre Dame and, mainly because of Chip’s easy goodness, several students from our hometown entered my life and graduated from Notre Dame as well. When my parents died, Chip handled their affairs.
People thread through our lives in good and fascinating ways; serendipity part of life’s alchemy. It was Steve who, years back, stopped by my office one day when he was on campus and, as he was leaving, asked if I knew Tom Werge. “You’d really like him,” he said. “You guys would hit it off.”
That night I went through some old boxes and found the piece I’d written in Huck’s voice about the river in Huckleberry Finn. I put it in campus mail the next day, sending it off to Werge with a note. “You wanted to talk to me about this 10 years ago. Do you still?”
Father Robert Griffin, CSC, ’49, ’58M.A. was not on the faculty, but he was a teacher. Each Friday for 20 years The Observer carried one of his essays under the running head, “Letters to a Lonely God.” His Sunday evening Masses in the Stanford-Keenan chapel were standing room only. He said a weekly Urchin’s Mass, inviting all the little children of faculty and staff to the Sacred Heart altar for an intimate observance of that blessed rite. The very large priest and his cocker spaniel, Darby O’Gill, were beloved campus figures. He lived in residence halls, first with men and then among women, and eventually was given the title “University chaplain.” For years he kept vigil in the LaFortune basement until the early morning hours for students to come and talk. He spent summers and winter breaks at a parish in Greenwich Village, and his experiences there provided many stories for his columns. He could see Christ in the people on the margins, the vagabonds, vagrants and misfits, those suffering from AIDS or mental disorders.
I did not know Griff until I was asked to profile him in Notre Dame Magazine. It was maybe 1981. My plan was to write about his life in Greenwich Village. So I introduced myself on campus and told him what I wanted to do, and he invited me to stay with him at the rectory there. During our first meal together, as he sipped his Manhattan, he outlined two ground rules. His days were his; he wanted no interloper invading the personal space of those he visited. He would give me plenty of time at night; we’d see the city together. Second: There would be no story. “But . . .” I gasped. “I know what I said,” he admitted, cutting me off. “But every young man should spend a week in New York, and here you are. How else would you have come to the city with five days on your hands? And with me to be your tour guide at night.”
My days, like his, were my own and I roamed on foot all over Manhattan — parks and museums, art galleries, bookstores and diners. Griff and I met up for dinner in the rectory before we walked all over, too, as evening turned to twilight and into dark, sometimes sitting on a park bench or in a sidewalk café. It’d be midnight or later when we’d return to the rectory whose fourth-floor rooftop provided a stunning tableau of the color and commotion of Washington Square Park across the street. City lights and snarled traffic, wafting summer breezes and the gritty whirl of electric, variegated, sleepless humanity at our feet.
Back in South Bend, Griff and I had lunch together often, sometimes weekly, for many years. I’d come by his dorm room and we’d walk to the old University Club, stopping at the post office for him to get his mail. We talked about writing and God, Gatsby and Faulkner, Catholicism and Hemingway, University politics and our personal lives, priestly living and dark nights of the soul. Griff was from Maine, a brooding Irishman and wounded, melancholy New Englander who could recite Robert Frost and speak of graveyards and ghosts and the trials of faith, of crippled saints and holy sinners.
For decades Griff wrote for each issue of Notre Dame Magazine, and I was his editor, bearing sheets of onion-skin paper with his typewritten, poetic prose smelling harshly of cigarette smoke back to my office where I exposed the bones of the author’s intentions, coaxing forth his meanings while applying some needed discipline and clarity. Ms. Ciske would have been proud. Griff would write through the night; I would do a little shaping and pruning by day.
He wasn’t on the faculty, and I didn’t know him when I was a student. Still, when I think of my Notre Dame education — like others who could speak similarly of rectors, counselors, mentors and friends — I think of lunches and walks with the author-priest who ushered me gently into a writing life . . . and the story I have never written.
The thing is, good teachers do instill knowledge, but they give a whole lot more — mainly of themselves.
In the years after we finally discussed my paper on Huck Finn, Tom Werge and I would meet for lunch, too. He was, as I remembered him as a teacher, a rich river of literary erudition, guiding our talks from Twain to Steinbeck to Babette’s Feast to Death of a Salesman. Werge is still a lamplighter, holding a lantern up to everyday occurrences, relishing the ubiquity of art and insight. But he does so with ease, in the same manner he talks about the Cubs or the latest episode of The Simpsons. He levels the intellectual playing field, is unpretentious and accessible, boyish, funny and self-deprecating, often joking about the discrepancy between his modern-American self and his Viking ancestry.
He leavened each class with stories, like the time he dropped from a bridge in New Jersey that spanned a river as it flowed into the Atlantic. He had jumped as a teenager in a rite of passage and now, casting a much larger shadow than he did back then, had determined that his middle years deserved such an act of bravado. He wavered, however, as he looked down while clambering over the guardrail — only to realize a crowd had gathered to watch. There was no going back.
Werge’s storytelling was the stuff of Mark Twain, Dave Barry and Woody Allen as he recounted his trepidations and fear, his flying through the air, extending his arms as he hit the water, the screaming pain in his shoulder, the arm dislocated from its socket making it hard to swim as the tides carried him out to sea, his laboring, one-armed dog paddle toward land, dragging his watery self up a ladder onto shore — “like a beached whale” — only to realize he had flopped onto the patio of a tony seacoast bistro, patrons gawking.
Humor. Even when Tom and I have talked about life’s tragedies, personal pain, the ache of aging, familial dissolutions and disappointments, he uses humor as the flash card to slip levity into the somber and make us laugh — at life and all its bafflements and absurdities.
The thing about teachers is that they don’t just impart knowledge. They don’t just share their zeal for learning, the joy of discovery. It is more than the proficiencies handed down, the seven reasons, four causes and other answers long forgotten. More than the things talked about in class, in their office or over coffee, their character persists. They show us how to go about it, how to approach life, how to walk through it. They enter us. We are made of their giving, the life lessons and the light bulbs going on, the pieces of memory comprising the mosaic of who we become. These memories are my stories, but each of us is a universe of composite parts, the accumulation of all those we carry around inside of us — and they thread through our lives in real and beneficial ways, appearing, reappearing in person or living in our thoughts.
We, too, even without knowing why or how or when, become the stuff of others, showing up in their memories, our lives passing beyond our own, itinerant guests in a weaving of stories without endings.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.