Thomas More College’s warmth and wonder

I’m now coming near to the end of my first semester at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, and despite the continuing difficulties and huge expense of moving 30 years’ worth of accumulated furniture and 6,000 books, selling the old house, and dealing with surprises visited upon us by the new one, I think that the fools and knaves at “St. Eustaby Catholic College,” where I Eusta Teach, did me a grace despite themselves.

I have told my wife that I will never again, for the rest of my career, have an experience that I had gotten used to even when St. Eustaby was healthier than it is now. I will never again come home from work frustrated or sad, feeling that I’d been able to reach only a few of my freshmen in a required course in western civilization—as if I had to beg them to show an interest in Plato, or scripture, or Virgil, or St. Augustine. I will never think that I should have done something else for a living, something of more certain benefit to mankind than engaging in the great national pretense of higher education, which is also the great national swindle. People at least derive pleasure from a bowling alley, even if they cannot find anything to move their souls in Aeneas’ account of the treachery of the Greeks and the fall and destruction of Troy.

I will never again come home thinking that I have left a place where I do not really belong, because I believe passionately in the goodness of reading the old classics, while most of my nominal colleagues do not. I will never again have to consider that I have nothing in common with most of those colleagues, who judge value by economic or political utility. I will never again have to hold my tongue as professors who are poorly read and who cannot write English deliver themselves of opinions about what makes for a real education.

I will never again have to sigh and pray for forbearance as I put up with professors whose atheism or agnosticism sets a low ceiling over their souls, so that even if they do not hate what Catholics believe and celebrate, they neither know about it nor care to know. I will not have to look at the clouded and sullen countenances of young people who have long ago lost their innocence and their faith and to know, no matter how hard I try to reach them, whatever fitful fire I light in the damp autumn of their souls will be doused by the next professor they meet, or by beer and the sad hedonism of the weekend.

Here is my experience now.

I arrive at school at eight in the morning. Every boy and girl I meet—we do use those affectionate words, without embarrassment—waves to me and says hello, even those I do not have in class. I walk up to my office in the converted barn, which houses the chapel, a student lounge, the cafeteria, and some offices upstairs. On the stairwell, I have to pass by one of my students, a girl who is cleaning the steps with a vacuum; that’s because at Thomas More, the kids themselves do a lot of the work. Others are downstairs, cleaning up after breakfast—the kids are responsible for hot breakfasts and for brunch and supper on Sunday.

I’m hardly seated in the office when I hear a knock on the door. A student has come by to talk about her paper. This happens all the time. It’s hard to get work done in your office at Thomas More, because the kids come by to talk—they want to learn. One of them has stopped by for a few lessons in elementary Italian, which he wants to pick up, because he and the whole sophomore class will be spending next semester in Rome.

Every class begins with prayer. I could never do that at St. Eustaby, because many of the students would have found it uncomfortable and disagreeable, and if an untenured professor outside of the theology department ever tried to do that, he might as well kiss his job goodbye. Typically, I choose a passage from Scripture to read, one that bears some relationship to the subject of the day’s class. Discussions are usually pretty spirited, and sometimes a student will ask a probing question that is “bigger” than the day’s material—for instance, what exactly I think the difference is between folk music and the pseudo-folk music of modern hymnals, or what the difference is between poetry properly speaking and language that has a poetic character to it.

What goes on before class and between classes is perhaps more remarkable still. The boys and girls talk to one another. No cell phones or laptops are allowed in classes, and that means that the dead silence that has come to prevail in classrooms at other places before the professor arrives, somberness without sobriety, quiet without peace, is unknown there. I often have to ask what they’re laughing about, so that I can share in the merriment.

The kids all know one another and look out for one another. If one of them is sick and needs to go see a doctor, somebody will give him a ride. Somebody else will sub for him in the cafeteria. Somebody else will make sure to pick up his assignments. I had to fetch a 300-pound Hammond organ from Portland, Maine, a couple of hours away, and it was as easy as clapping my hands to find a couple of guys to go for the ride on a Saturday—and then to get a fourth person from school to follow along with us in his car so that we could hoist the thing up the two flights of stairs into my son’s room, and then they could all return to school in the second car. It was a lark. We talked about school, sports, the Church, and languages for the two hours there and the two hours and more back. One of the boys said he learned more about language from that car ride than he had from four years at a pretty good Catholic school in Massachusetts.

At 11:30, unless I’m really under the gun, I go to Mass. Everybody except for the kids slated to help the chef in the cafeteria can go to Mass. No classes are scheduled for that time, and no office hours or appointments. Yesterday, four students—three of whom I have in class and have come to know pretty well—sang O Bone Jesu by Palestrina in a polyphonic setting. They do that entirely on their own. The students do a lot of things entirely on their own: it is their campus, their school, in a way that I have never experienced where I have studied or taught. This Saturday and Sunday they will be performing The Taming of the Shrew, self-directed, self-produced.

After Mass comes lunch. Again, everybody can go to lunch, because no classes are scheduled, and no office hours or appointments. I usually skip lunch so as to get a jump on my afternoon classes, but lunch is a real community affair. Everybody eats from the same buffet. Everybody waits for Mass to end, for the rest of the people to come. Grace is said before the meal. At some point after everybody has gotten seated, a bell rings and people listen to announcements, usually given by one of the students.

One of the most delightful features of lunchtime is the presence of little children. Usually one or another of the professors brings his kids to school, and then we hear those happy voices that are unnaturally absent at almost every other college in the country. I have made friends with them, assisted one day by my dog Jasper and his 70-odd tricks. It is a healthy thing to be around the very young. Healthy and entirely natural; segregation by age is what’s artificial.

Nor do I have to negotiate a no-man’s-land of ignorance and sporadic knowledge when I teach. Everyone takes the same series of well-planned courses in the liberal arts and the development of the Christian and western world. I need not explain who Plato was. I need not bend my words yogi-fashion to persuade those open to it that George Herbert is worth reading, while not losing the others to disaffection. My students would be disappointed if I were not enthusiastic!

They make the old man young.

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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