Thomas More College: Brothers dwelling together in unity

I’ve just finished my first day of classes at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, my new academic home, where I aim to spend the late afternoon and evening of my career. Allow me to note a few things that I have experienced in a single day, that I had not experienced since I began to teach college students in 1985.

When I arrived on campus, I went to the building where my new office is. I’m upstairs in a building that houses the chapel, the cafeteria, and a lounge for students which sports some musical instruments, tables, games, and a pool table. I make a mental note of that: “Challenge one of these guys to a game of straight pool, to 50.” One of the students waves to me from below.

You will say, “What is strange about that?”

Ah, yes. What indeed. Pretty much everywhere else, and that includes my old Nameless College such as it has become, the lives of students and professors are kept professionally separate. I have not in 30 years been in the vicinity of a game of chess with a student, yet one young man was sitting at the table when I came down, playing a game against himself, fooling around with an exceedingly strange early move of Knight to Queen’s Rook 3.

I walk across to the building where most of the classes are held. My first class is in the ballroom, a beautiful old Victorian room lined with bookshelves on all sides. Those shelves are part of the college’s library. I believe that you are supposed to check books out, but there are no alarms, no metal detectors, and no teeny-tiny thallium chips inserted into the bindings. Your eye can scan centuries of learning. In fact, I got the impression that you were encouraged to gaze at them.

(At my old Nameless College, somebody decided about 20 years ago that books were the enemy—dreadful, old, atavistic, heavy, mold-attracting, sweet, beautiful, musty books. So we dumped about 40,000 of them, if I remember right. I use the word “dump” in its most technical sense: The books were transferred to a dumpster. I snatched a few dozen before they were sent down the chute, among them an irreplaceable and not-replaced dictionary of medieval Latin—2,000 pages of small print and decades of learning. Nor can you scan the stacks at leisure. You often have to press buttons to clear a walking space between them. Do not for one moment suppose that they compress the stacks in this way because the place is crowded with books.)

I’m a little embarrassed because I’m the new fellow and everybody knows it. But there are students standing on the porch of the building. They greet me as I approach. Is that strange? Absolutely. Keep in mind that almost every college in the nation is a vast hulk of a thing, anonymous, impersonal, aggressive in its self-promotion, overbearing, loud, flashy, crowded, empty.

Here everyone knows everyone else. It’s impossible to be lonely. It’s also impossible to hold yourself aloof. Bartleby the scrivener, if he could have been transferred to Thomas More College for his health, would be found cutting a caper after a week or so—he would prefer to. I had never seen a girl in a handsome dress tossing a football with a couple of boys in a field; I guess I will see many such human things.

Class begins at 9:45 a.m., but I could have begun it five minutes early because everybody was there, everybody looking in my direction, bright and happy.

I had assigned two poems by George Herbert, “The Sacrifice” and “The Thanksgiving.” The first is an intensely dramatic expansion of the Good Friday reproaches. They are spoken by Christ in rhyming triplets, with the haunting question appended, “Was ever grief like mine?” The second is the poet’s response to that sacrifice, wherein he tries to vie with Christ in generosity by giving Him back all His gifts, sweetened with the fruits of charity. But he sees in the end that nothing he can do will weigh even a dram against the immense weight of suffering borne by Jesus. The poem ends:
Then for thy passion—I will do for that—
Alas, my God, I know not what.

And that, paradoxically, is the greatest thanksgiving that the grateful soul can give.

I do not have to explain what Good Friday is, or the Reproaches, or the Lamentations of Jeremiah, though I remind the students of them all. I do not have to explain what Herbert means when Jesus says, “Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree.” These students dwell already in a world of miracles. The foundation has been built. Walls and rooms are up, the land is cleared, orchards and gardens have been planted. I am not irrigating a desert.

We do far more with those two poems in the first class period, though not one of the students is an “English major”—the course is simply required of all first semester sophomores—than I could do in a week of classes anywhere else. If I were at a secular school, I might as well have been speaking Albanian or Zulu.

Not one student hangs back. Not one stares at his shoes. Not one sneaks a glance at his cell phone. Not one sulks. Among such people I feel that I have shed 30 years. I start to think that maybe I will break out the wiffle ball and bat, after all.

Class is over, and nobody is in a hurry to rush off anywhere. There are three reasons for that, as I can see. The first is that the students are eager to learn, and still want to talk about the poetry. The second is that they have 15 minutes to get to their next class, which will be within a stone’s throw away at the most. The third is that there are no classes at that time in any case. Mass will begin in half an hour, and everyone has the opportunity to attend. So do I.

The hired advertisers of other colleges make a lot of happy patter about “community.” Here there are no hired advertisers, and no need to patter. Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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