On Being a “Freshman” Forever and “Dr. Middleton’s Little Cards”

 

The address that follows was written and delivered nearly 10 years ago but seems as “fresh” to me now as it did then.

Comments welcome.

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                   PHI KAPPA PHI FRESHMAN HONORS BANQUET ADDRESS:

                         NICHOLLS STATE UNIVERSITY, 13 NOVEMBER 2003

 

       It is indeed a great and singular honor for me to address, on this happy occasion, students who have made the exhilarating, yet sometimes difficult, transition from high school to college and through the freshman year with such distinction. My remarks will touch briefly upon three points: first, memories of my own freshman year in college; second, reflections on the word freshman as signifying not only a year that quickly passes in one’s college career but also a permanent part of one’s being as a lifelong learner and distinguished professional after graduation; and third – and, from my perspective as someone now thirty-six years beyond his own freshman year, most importantly — what needs adding to good grades now and professional success later to be truly happy in life.

     First, then, random memories — from June, 1967, the summertime beginning of my freshman year in college at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston through May of 1968 when I became a sophomore: an un-air-conditioned freshman dorm and a roommate who stayed up all night with room-lights blazing, slept all day, and “borrowed” my toothpaste and other toiletries (this was my version of freshman hell), a nationally known and most excellent history professor who entered and left the room lecturing at warp speed, who looked like an Egyptian pharaoh, and whom I brazenly informed in advance that I was skipping the only class I  ever skipped as an undergraduate, his, to drive to Baton Rouge to see Donovan in concert; a chairman of the English department, who, asking the eight or ten of us beginning college in summer school why we wanted to be English majors, got from all the others answers such as — to be a teacher or to be a scholar — but who got from me an answer he was skeptical about from then until he died, my dear personal friend, eighteen years later — “because I want to be a poet”; being written up repeatedly by the dorm’s house matron, who left her little standard checklist on my desk after her mandated clandestine class-time weekly visits, for shoes and books scattered about (failings, my wife will tell you, I have yet to overcome); being warned about the dangers, not of STDs, but of PDA (Public Display of Affection) — it was another, more innocent age (at least in Ruston and in north Louisiana) — where PDA was strictly forbidden, no holding hands or hugging and kissing in public on campus; a VW “Bug” purchased brand new for $800, gas 29 cents a gallon, a fill-up for two dollars; a hamburger at Macdonald’s, 15 cents, only a dime on Thursdays, Cokes and fries a dime apiece, calls from a public phone booth merely a nickel, admission to the movies a buck and a quarter; books for a full-class load for the term $50 at most, tuition, room & board, $200, and no one I knew had summer or part-time jobs, only a few had jobs on campus; finally and most importantly to many of us then, in July of 1967 the Beatles releasing their famous, radically innovative album — which cost all of $2.98 (stereo) — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — an album that captured then and retains even now the spirit of what the word “freshman,” in part at least, means — change, transition, renewal, rebirth. Obviously, being a “freshman” means more than passing through one’s first year of college: it is, rather, a state of mind, a state of being, a permanent part, I would argue, of what it means to be human.

      And so, my second point — what, in the deepest sense, does it mean to have been a freshman last year or to be one in any and every year of one’s life?  Unabridged dictionaries offer many definitions of fresh, the first syllable of fresh-man. Do any of these definitions seem tonight to fit?  — “the opposite of salt, new, novel, additional, not bitter, not pickled or smoked, untainted, pure, invigorating, retaining its original qualities, not musty or stale, not faded, worn, sullied, or tarnished.” Such definitions all seem to me to be rooted in the word wonder: an eternal freshness or, to invent a term, “freshman-ship” of spirit as one wakens each day and goes about in this strange and marvelous world which a philosopher once called an “open mystery.” The English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, speaking of his fellow Romantic poet and dear friend, William Wordsworth, said that what made Wordsworth a genius was his ability to carry into manhood, by way of an undiminished sense of wonder, the experiences of childhood. This eternal freshness, or refusal to harden into the dullness of boredom and habit, coupled with an openness to new insights and change, is a part of what makes for greatness. And so, in this sense, a freshman on his deathbed at 90, Michelangelo, creator of the Pieta, the David, and decorator of the Sistine Chapel, said that he was “dying just as I was beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession.” Renoir, the great French painter, crippled with arthritis, had brushes lashed to his wrists and thus painted on until the end in this fresh manner. Picasso died at 91, making new paintings until the end. And Sophocles, the great Greek playwright, at 90, defeated an attempt by greedy, impatient heirs to have him declared mentally unfit by providing as evidence in court passages from a freshly drafted play: “The playwright’s son Iophon took him to court, claiming that his father was too doddering to manage his financial affairs. To prove his sanity, the poet recited a portion of Oedipus at Colonus, which he was composing at the time. “If I am Sophocles,” he is supposed to have said, “I am not senile, and if I am senile, I am not Sophocles.” The court was so moved by his recitation that the case was immediately dismissed.” (from “Sophocles: A Mythic Life – ART — American Repertory Theater” — online).

      Even my own father, an artist well known in northwest Louisiana and a man who jogged marathons into his late 50s until struck by Parkinson’s disease, became, through his increasing disabilities, a freshman of everything — personal hygiene, eating, talking, needing 30 minutes to cross a room on a walker, and, with hands stiffened by disease, able to paint only squares of primary colors arranged on canvas in simple patterns of change and repetition, or, as he said so heroically to me when I came in upon him one day making his simple, sequenced squares, “I’m working on a new concept.” A new concept, a new direction — the eternally available spirit of the freshman! — such a spirit always has its surprises.

     When I was a freshman (that is, first-year) graduate student at LSU in 1971, I studied day and night, almost “24/7” as we say today. Fran, now my wife of 27 years and also a graduate student then in English, was at her wits’ end as to how to get my attention. She finally took to calling me early on Saturday nights, offering to bring me hot chocolate, supposedly to aid me in my endless studying, chocolate which she swore she’d just pass me through the apartment door, leaving me then to study on. Well, when she showed up, the chocolate was cold and in, of all things, a mayonnaise jar. So she’d innocently (hmm . . .) ask to be allowed to come in “just for a moment” to heat up the chocolate. Needless to say, I did no further studying on such nights but instead watched old black-and-white late-night horror movies as we drank the re-heated chocolate and in time, started to fall in love — another freshman moment when I was reminded of what’s most important life. And that now brings me to my third and final point — what, beyond professional success and domestic contentment, brings the greatest happiness in life — a philosophical, even, perhaps, theological definition, of what it means to nurture within one’s own being forever that spirit I call the freshman.

     One possible meaning of “fresh,” as we have seen, is “to retain the original quality” of a thing — something difficult to do if one believes that there is a profound truth in the biblical story of the Fall of Humankind from Paradise. And if the Fall has in some sense occurred, then that explains why the intellectual efforts that led to your being here tonight were sometimes painful and required sacrifice on your part as well as support from parents and other family members and friends who are with some of you here this evening. As the great poet T.S. Eliot said, to inherit your culture — to feel Homer in your bones — you have to sweat, which was Adam’s curse, but which, in another sense, was also his blessing, the root of his human dignity. This striving to attain, first, knowledge and, in the end one prays, wisdom, means that all your life you will be forever passing through cycles of planting tending, fruition, harvesting, and then once again sowing the seeds of renewal — or, in other terms, being a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, and then a freshman again, but on another level.

     Yet what will matter most when, as they will, these cycles of fruition and renewal come to an end, when the journey you are just now beginning is finally over? I myself have striven for nearly forty years to write poetry, have had some measure of success, and in recent years have even achieved in some circles a national reputation as a poet. When I was a college freshman telling my department head why I wanted to be an English major, attaining such a reputation meant nearly everything to me. But now, as a man moving ever further and all too swiftly into later middle age, I hope to be remembered for a time, not nationally, but locally, right around here, by something else — what Wordsworth calls in his great poem Tintern Abbey a person’s “little nameless unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”

     In my case, such acts are expressed by means of small colored cards made by Anglican nuns in Maryland. (Yes, we Anglicans do have nuns and nunneries.) I keep a supply of these little cards on hand and, as word reaches me that this or that colleague at work or friend away from school is having a hard time in his or her personal or professional life, I leave a card or two — signed or unsigned, as seems best — on a desk, in a mailbox, beside a computer screen or coffee cup, or sometimes in the palm of a hand. It’s a ministry I have, not meant to convert anyone to this or that faith or denomination, but simply to try to bring that person’s freshman spirit back, the spirit of renewal, the rebirth of that “original quality” of freshened love and hope. (Maybe, too, it’s my way of trying to make up for all those notes about scattered shoes and books that my dorm matron left in my room at college all those years ago.)

 

     And what to these little cards say and what pictures go with the words?

 

     Here’s a brief sample: (I’ll leave some of these cards at the podium for any who may wish to see them later.)

Look at the stars instead of the night (stars against a black night sky)

The only thing we ever have is what we give away (a farmer sowing seed by hand

       in a furrowed field)

Those who love God never meet for the last time (two birds flying from different  

      directions toward the sun that is setting behind a mountain)

Work is love made visible (a mother bird feeding her young)

It’s the little things that tend to hold us back: / You can sit upon a mountain /

      But not upon a tack (a sunlit mountaintop)

A wise old, owl lived in an oak.

The more he saw, the less he spoke.

The less he spoke, the more he heard,

Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?

         (an owl in an oak)

I could tell the lamplighter by the trail he left behind him (an altar boy lighting a candle)

Beauty is God’s handwriting (an opening flower)

Every ending holds within the seeds of a new beginning (a brown stalk with seedpods

      splitting apart in autumn)

And, finally, my favorite, a picture of two very tired migrating ducks landing on a pond

    after a long passage: “With knowledge we begin the journey; only by love

    do we reach the end.”

 

     So my third and final point may be summed up like this: as you strive for success in this beautiful but fallen world, I encourage you always to have a ministry, your own version of Dr. Middleton’s little colored cards with encouraging words and pictures and Wordsworth’s “little nameless unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”

     Tomorrow, I am flying to New York City to deliver a paper at the annual meeting of the Guild of Scholars of the Episcopal Church, a group of no more than 60 of us nationwide, two members of which were the late English poet W.H. Auden and the late southern scholar, critic, and editor Cleanth Brooks. Among such ghosts and among those distinguished men and women who currently make up the Guild, I am as much a freshman still as you were last year at Nicholls and as those who’ve followed you are at Nicholls today. When I depart tomorrow, I’ll keep in mind the closing lines of seventeenth-century English poet John Milton’s poem Lycidas, a poem that marked the end of one phase of his poetic life and the beginning of another. Speaking as a shepherd, Milton says “Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.” (There’s our word fresh again.)

     In closing, let me return for a moment to my own freshman year of 1967. In that year, the Beatles brought out Sgt. Pepper, but Bob Dylan only released a greatest hits album, that because he’d almost lost his life the year before in a motorcycle accident and was laid up in Woodstock, New York, recovering. Yet soon he and his tremendous back-up group, later known in their own right as The Band, would turn to a new kind of music for Dylan, one with deep roots in American country, bluegrass, and gospel traditions as well as in the folk and rock-n-roll traditions he’d already mastered. I’ll leave you with the lyrics of one of Dylan and The Band’s best songs, because these lyrics seem to me to sum up well that eternal freshman spirit, which I hope none of you will ever lose:

 

May God bless and keep you always.

May your wishes all come true.

May you always do for others,

And let others do for you.

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung,

And may you stay — forever young.

 

May you grow up to be righteous.

May you grow up to be true.

May you always know the truth

And see the lights surrounding you.

May you always be courageous,

Stand upright and be strong,

And may you stay — forever young.

 

May your hands always be busy.

May your feet always be swift.

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift.

May your heart always be joyful.

May your song always be sung,

And may you stay — forever young.

 

(www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bobdylan/foreveryoung.html‎)

And so, congratulations, my fellow lifelong sharers in the freshman spirit, and good luck.

delivered on 13 November 2003 at the Phi Kappa Phi Freshman Honors Banquet  at Nicholls State University, Thibodaux, Louisiana

 

David Middleton

 

 

 

     

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