I teach undergraduate writing at Boston University. I also do something else, something less visible, less instructive. Throughout the year and for four to eight weeks each semester and during the summer, I “teach” a course in the short story.
The American Short Story course is part of the offerings of the Evergreen Program (the title is self-explanatory) at my university, which is one of the best-kept secrets on Commonwealth Avenue: A large group of us read a short story or two for the week and then together talk about it. (We’re too big to be a reading group.) We meet usually in a large auditorium, and invariably we end the semester wanting more of the same. Really and truly, it is that great of a course!
The wanting was palpable this last Tuesday when we discussed (or rather conversed around) two stories which seemed, on initial readings, to be resistant to extended commentary and analysis. But the class surprised us all again for its depth and cogency, for the delight which we all took in meeting the strange characters of our stories, being part of their world, but also for the way the conversation evolved, digressing here and there, and then returning to the major questions we posed at the beginning, and for the ways in which various readings cohabited the space of our words and observations.
I am the teacher, or the facilitator, or the wanna-be-Oprah, or just another reader thrust to the front a microphone in her hand, the one who keeps things going, you could say. Makes no difference the designation. And for all of my sometimes crusty attitude (it’s choreographed, you understand) honed to perfection over more than three decades of teaching undergrads, this “course” never ceases to amaze me for its depth, its energy, and its (read, our) unwillingness to get boring and bored. We’ve been doing prose readings for at least ten years now (the group changes from session to session, but there are some loyalists who have come back for many years now), and last Tuesday’s class was no different in that respect from other final classes.
Our group is mostly professional persons, mostly retired, mostly individuals who have lived full lives and who can now reflect, meditate, take a jab, go off on a tangent, bring a new perspective into the discussion, raise a odd sort of question. All are here by choice and love for reading, and all are great readers–some better than me.
That’s what happened in our penultimate class when we were reading Joseph Epstein’s “Beyond the Pale.” In the course of our conversation, an alternative interpretation of the last scene emerged; it was radically different from the one I had proposed. This reading was persuasive, powerful and informed by life. I went back to the story later, and read it anew.
Seriously: Is there anything more one can ask for than a new re-reading, a new way of looking at familiar material? And should this not be the “end of education,” in both senses of the word?
A farewell is short and sweet, unlike a goodbye. Now that the secret of Commonwealth Avenue is out, let’s say farewell. We’ll meet again, when the construction on the BU Bridge is completed (completed?), when the weather turns crisp, when we are a little older and more creaky.
Stories and their readers–an unpredictable meeting; a conversation of many voices and cadences, of resilient faces and the lives they contain. Thank you!