78: A Semester with T.S. Eliot

78: A Semester with T.S. Eliot

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

A Semester with T.S. Eliot

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

~Mark Van Doren

It was the first day of second semester during my senior year at the University of Kansas. As an English major, I was looking forward to one more semester full of reading for hours and writing inspiring essays (I know, what a dork). It was going to be the last hurrah of my undergraduate career and I wanted more than anything to go out with a bang.

Then I went to my last class of the day. It was a study on the poet, dramatist, and critic, T.S. Eliot. I knew little of Eliot, but I figured that by now I could easily handle any upper level English course. I shouldn’t have been so optimistic.

When my professor walked into the class I almost laughed out loud. He looked like a stereotypical college professor, complete with a corduroy jacket and a briefcase. I kept thinking at any moment he would pull out a pipe. He had a British accent despite the fact that his hometown was somewhere in South Carolina.

Like many of my other professors, he found it necessary to torture his students on the first day of classes by making them introduce themselves to the class, giving information that no one really needs to know. One by one, each student stated their name, hometown, and major. Afterwards we were supposed to tell one interesting fact about ourselves. This task was always much harder for me than it should have been. None of my classmates seemed to feel this way as they rattled off interesting literary works that they felt somehow related to them. The biggest overachievers of the class recited Eliot’s work and then went on to relate it to their life. By the time it was my turn, I was so lost I almost got up and ran. It was obvious to me that I wasn’t going to fit into this class unless I learned some new vocabulary quickly.

I introduced myself the best I could. I tried to make Lenexa, Kansas, sound exotic rather than a quiet, suburban town twenty-eight miles from campus. Then, I very excitedly announced that come May I would be taking the traditional walk down the hill to celebrate graduation.

My professor, who already looked disappointed in me, lowered his head and said, “Well, you have to pass my class first. So we’ll see.”

I waited for him to laugh. He didn’t. A giant lumped formed in my throat. I already hated T.S. Eliot and I had yet to read a piece of his work.

For the next four months, it was Eliot who haunted my dreams. I would read his poems five or six times and write down comments that would make me look smart. It didn’t fool anyone. My reading responses were always returned to me covered in red ink. Usually my professor would kindly write at the bottom: “I think you missed the point.” But I would not be defeated. I had sat through too many boring lectures and written too many papers on topics I cared little about to let one professor keep me from getting the ultimate prize: my degree.

So I did the unthinkable. I gave my assignments everything I had. I stayed in on Friday nights and spent hours in a quiet corner of the library reading everything I could about Eliot. I wrote and rewrote my final paper until I was sure it was the best thing I had ever written. It had to be — it was worth seventy percent of my final grade.

I patiently waited for my grades to be posted. I would wake up at six every morning and quickly log on to the computer, hoping that I had passed. I couldn’t eat or sleep. Forget having fun, all I could think about were the works of Eliot. His poems raced through my mind days after our final class. I would go for runs and recite “Ash Wednesday” with every step I took.

Finally, the day came. Just before graduation, my grade was posted. There next to the name of that horrific class was the letter B. It might as well have been an A, because I had never felt more proud of myself.

I didn’t have the heart to sell back my T.S. Eliot books. We had been through so much that I felt I couldn’t part with them. I keep them tucked away in my closet for now. I’m not ready to re-read them yet. I’m worried the nightmares of that semester will return. But I happily look at my diploma and remind myself that with hard work and determination, I can always overcome even the biggest critic.

~Kathleen Ingraham

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