My very first course at Wesleyan College was Survey of American Literature taught by Dr. Leah Strong. The class gathered on the second floor of the Tate Hall. The ceilings were high, the plastered walls and the dark wooden windows so heavy that when they were opened, which was quite often because there was no air conditioning at the Tate at that time, you could hear the chains creak in the frames halfway up campus.
It was a beautiful Indian summer day and the sun seemed to move in waves with the breeze ruffling the leaves of the gingko trees growing outside. My classmates and I, probably 10 or 12 of us, sat in old wooden desks whose tops had been scarred by 50 years of graffiti etched by the pens and pencils of dreamy Wesleyan girls.
We had been there for several minutes and I was wondering how long to wait for a teacher (I later learned that the “rule” was five minutes for an assistant teacher, 10 for an associate, and 15 for a full teacher. ) when a figure rushed into the doorway. She was a short, chubby, gray-haired woman wearing granny glasses, black polyester pants, a Hawaiian-print shirt, and shoes my dad called brogans. She carried under her arm, not a briefcase, nor a textbook, nor a sheaf of class notes, but a motorcycle helmet.
She strode purposefully across the front of the room, set her headphones in the middle of the desk, then walked around the desk and hopped backwards onto the desk, leaving her short legs dangling like a puppet’s.
She looked around the room and said, “The definition of poetry…” We quickly opened our brand new spiral notebooks and put our pens down on the clean white page. “The definition of poetry…” She looked around again. “When I was a child, my father used to bring home packets of paper dumplings. These pellets were the size of BB’s and when you dropped one of these pellets into a glass of water it would slowly begin to unfurl and unfold until a few minutes later the pellet turned into a beautiful flower . Each of the pellets was different. Each produced a flower of unique beauty.
She looked around her a third time. “The poem is the pellet and you are the glass of water.”
I realized I was watching. I had not written a single word. And all I could think was, “Oh my Lord, I’m going to love college.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve told this story. This is one of the defining moments not only of my university studies, but of my life. He was articulating a truth that I had carried in my heart, believed with all my heart, and had never been able to put into words. Now I could: beauty exists without permission, without license, but it needs a vessel, a conduit through which to make itself known.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak to an audience, mostly students, at East Georgia State College. I told them the story of the paper balls. And I told them about “The Little Prince”, my favorite book which also talks, now that I think about it, about a flower of unique beauty.
It’s all now become an earworm, repeating over and over as I make the bed, answer emails, walk the road lined with bright yellow asters and broom sedges as tall as a child 10 years old. The idea of beauty, of all things, needing help to accomplish its purpose is amazing. And disconcerting.
A whole different way of thinking is needed if we recognize this particular truth, if we accept that beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, but depends on the beholder, if we accept our own responsibility to bring beauty to the world .
I watched the sunrise this morning. Pale stripes of orange and pink and peach, some streaks of dark purple. They would have been there – the stripes and streaks – even if I hadn’t seen them, even if I hadn’t stood barefoot on a wet deck, hugging the cold. They would have been there, but they wouldn’t have looked good if I hadn’t seen them. But I did, and because I did, they were.