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March 25, 2013

Paris Achenbach ’13

This semester I'm taking a seminar on Vladimir Nabokov's fiction with David Walker (a fabulous professor who has influenced numerous blogs and students alike), and one of our readings included The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Coincidentally, the introduction was written by none other than Michael Dirda, an Oberlin alumnus and Pulitzer-prize winning critic, and whose son overlapped with me at Oberlin. His magnificent introduction prompted me, upon returning home to DC for spring break, to dig out from our basement the book Readings, Dirda's collection of "essays and literary entertainments" from the 1990s. I opened to a page at random and read this:

February always felt bleakest in Oberlin - cold rain alternated with wet snow, the gray sky never changed for weeks, and we would shiver in our swampcoats and parkas while wading across the muddy quad toward the breakfast line at Dascomb.

Yes! So true! Except I usually don't eat breakfast in Dascomb, I tend to go for DeCafe. But otherwise, this sentence pretty much hits the nail on the head. I was thrilled to find Oberlin in the first six words I read of the book, and had to continue:

For a long time I thought about my friends when I remembered my days at Oberlin, some thirty years ago. But more recently I've started recalling my teachers. Most are retired now, some are dead, and I feel - perhaps a sign of my own middle-agedness - a bittersweet solicitude when I picture them: gripping lecterns, scribbling formulas on the blackboards, desperately questioning an honors seminar about the motivations for Emma Bovary's adultery. They tried so hard! I want to tell them, now that it is for the most part too late, how much I loved their courses; above all, I want to thank them for opening my mind to history, literature, art, philosophy, music, and so much else.

An odd sensation overcame me upon reading this passage. It was like an imminent nostalgia, only more than that - like I could really envision myself writing this, like I know that someday I will recall, with a bittersweet solicitude, my scribbling and gripping professors who inspired my life, but perhaps never knew it.

I think it's too easy for undergrads to be scared away from sentimentality, or at least afraid of coming off as a suck-up for professing our appreciation and gratitude to our teachers. Or, as it often goes in my case, we can be too unorganized and wrapped-up in the fascination of our own lives to take an hour after finals to write professor thank-you notes. I'm sure there are many students who do this. I, unfortunately, am not one of them.

I really wish I could dedicate this blog post to my thirty or so college professors and piano teachers and tell them each how they've inspired me over the years, but that would obviously be a lengthy bore to most readers; and besides, to do so online, in such a public display of appreciation, would feel wrong and overtly attention-seeking. But I will say this: that if you are one of my teachers reading this, you have impacted my life in your distinct way; have made me appreciate an unknown part of the world; and have inspired me to become a more intelligent and better version of myself. In other words, you have changed my life, and at a crucial time in my life. Whether you planted ideas of poetry, evolution, politics or environmentalism into my haywire organ of a brain, you gave me a base knowledge that I hope will one day grow into something like wisdom (or, at least, a good talking point at a party). I'm eternally grateful of everything - your kindness, your dedication, your respectable intelligence - that you shared with me while I've been at Oberlin. Although you may teach several hundred students a year and many of them probably disappear post-graduation without a trace, just know that we will remember you.

I like the way Dirda ends his essay (titled "The Learning Channels" - seriously, go read it, it's so good!), in which he stumbles upon an old college professor's newly-published book:

I've read two-thirds of the book and my copy is already stippled with stars, checks, underlinings and all the other ornamentation of intensive study. What's more, every so often a phrase or fact suddenly delivers a minor epiphany, and I can hear Colish's voice and feel myself -- for a brief, cozy moment --scribbling away in my college notebook. It's a good feeling, especially on a cold, gray winter morning in February.

And scribble we all do. I certainly hope in the decades to come I will continue to stipple my books with stars and notes in the margins, and that the energy for learning that my professors have shared with me will build upon itself; and that someday, I may stumble upon a professor's book that will transport me back to a desk in their class, and recall with fondness the gray wintery mornings of February in Oberlin.

Top image, Michael Dirda's book; bottom, my notes from my English classes this semester. I suppose "scribble" would be a strong term to describe my meticulous notes, but alas, my notebook is the one sector of my life that witnesses OCD.

Responses to this Entry

What can I say, Paris? I'm touched that you were moved by my essay enough to create a wonderful one of your own. Good luck with the blog! Your Dad--my Post colleague, the redoubtable polymath Joel Achenbach--must be very proud of you.
By the way, for anyone who might be interested, the last third of my memoir "An Open Book" focuses largely on my first two years at Oberlin.

Posted by: Michael Dirda on March 25, 2013 7:25 PM

Okay, I'll try this again, even though the blog mistook me for a bot when I didn't precisely type in the text of the mangled words in the bot-detector:

Whenever I read Dirda I vow to be a better reader. What Michael doesn't mention is that he's written a lot of books about reading, and they're all cult classics ("cult" means "books that should have sold better"). The fact that Dirda went to Oberlin was a huge selling point for me when you were pondering where to go and I was worried that we could only afford to send you to Northern Wyoming A&M. Anyway, nice essay, Paris, and make sure to show it to your professors (rule one these days is, you have to promote yourself).

Posted by: Joel Achenbach on March 26, 2013 12:30 PM

This is really nice of you, Paris. Like Mike, with whom I overlapped as an Oberlin student (hi, Mike!), I'm sure I never let my professors know at the time how much they meant to me. Fortunately, I returned to teach here soon enough that most of them were still around and I could convey my appreciation then. Anyway, I can assure you from the other side of the bridge that such expressions really do matter. So...thanks!

Posted by: David on March 29, 2013 4:03 PM

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