Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Great Moments in Teaching with Gerald Stern

Today is the final day of class. My students turned in their longer research papers at the beginning of our last session. Today, they are to turn in their writing portfolios.

On Monday, we had a pizza party and I showed them The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), with its famous "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!" line. Although they endured it politely (watching a movie while eating pizza is always preferable to a final exam on the use of the MLA citation format) it is my sense that the considerable charm of the film, and its subtlety--its subversiveness, really--a message for world peace delivered by an all-knowing alien in McCarthy-era Washington, D.C.–-eluded my students, though these are the kinds of things I've tried to talk about all semester. They seemed colossally bored through the entire 97 minutes of the film.

We have become inured to quiet charm, and the lessons of history are pretty much lost. I suppose that is the reason we repeat ourselves endlessly, to such stunningly bad effect.

One always hopes for a "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" moment, even if you are only teaching one section of English comp per semester to students who would, to a person, prefer to be sitting on a blanket in the sun or playing Frisbee in the Pine Grove.

Not that I blame them.

Here's a poem by Gerald Stern from his latest book, Everything is Burning: Poems (W.W. Norton, 2005), about such a moment, even if it came fifteen years or-so after the final day of class.


Those lilies of the field, one Sunday night
I got caught in Pocono traffic and sat there
for twenty minutes during the which in front
a madman saw me in his mirror and leaped
out of his car and running screamed Dr. Stern
I followed your advice I gave up everything
Thoreau was right simplicity I was your
student the which I stared at him the cars were
starting up again but I no longer
believed and had to leave him stranded, I
love you, I shouted, read something else, I would
have pulled off to the side of the road but there was no
shoulder there and so I lost him, whatever his
name was. I made a sharp left turn and that was
that, but what I owe him in his under
shirt, how long his beard was then, his eyes
were blue, his tires were bald, what Christ owes me!


NOTE: Although the Constant Reader knows that I often mis-type things, the version of Stern's "Lilies" you see here is exactly as it appears in his book. I think the off-kilter syntax and diction must have been intended as a reflection of the surprise of the reunion and the stuck-in-trafffic-that-is-just-beginning-to-move-again haste of that moment. Anyway, it is an interesting effect.


Blogger Macy Swain said...

Amusing, Greg. I once tried showing "Stop Making Sense" to my students on the last class (I told them it is, IMHO, the best rock video ever) and they rolled their eyes and endured -- I suppose the chocolate I provided got them through. Talking Heads? Who cares? How embarrassing! I realized the movie came out before they were born. Depressing.

That Gerald Stern poem is amazing -- and nervewracking. That anxious, guilty claustrophobia -- ah, the vagaries of teacherly influence.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Miguel Murphy said...

Oh yes, I love how you say it, the "quiet charm". . .

That movie was one of my favorites as a child! The silver, the silence, the kind of attention it demanded, the violent panic, childish, psychological fear of the mysterious, otherly, hidden, and the thrill it inspired. Thanks for reminding me. . .

And how you're lucky to be finished! (my semester doesn't end until JUNE) Cheers!

12:29 AM  
Blogger jenni said...

I thought the Stern poem was funny. "I/ love you, I shouted, read something else . . . "

hahaha. dead pan.

8:56 AM  
Blogger Diane K. Martin said...

The Man Who Fell to Earth is indelibly imbedded in my mind as well. Some scenes have (re)occurred in my dreams. And my poems.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

The Stern poem--yes, amazing!

8:46 AM  

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