My Last Class

I guess it’s apt that I taught Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for my very last class.  It was Wilde, of course, who claimed “life imitates art,” and in my case it was true, in a way, as I chose Hemingway’s Jake Barnes and Humphrey Bogart as my public masks, assuming the persona of a hard-drinking cynic, eschewing public tears as a failure of, if not character, at least temperament.  I didn’t weep at my parents’ funerals or at Judy Birdsong’s memorial service.[1]

So I was somewhat surprised to find myself yesterday in that last class on the verge of tears.  My friend and colleague Bill Slayton, a hell of a teacher, who is also retiring, asked if he could sit in, and I was happy he was there. The class had just finished Heart of Darkness, which was serialized in 1899, four years after the debut of The Importance of Being Earnest. I postulated that Marlow could be sitting on the deck of the Nellie in the River Thames telling his dark tale of jungle boogie, starring Kurtz and featuring severed human heads, while at the same time across town Wilde’s Algernon might be “tickling the ivories” and ordering his manservant Laine to fetch some cucumber sandwiches.

I suggested they were in the same town at the same time but in different centuries.

Bill talked of Tennyson and Browning and their raging against the decline of culture.  He quoted the last lines of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wilde, he said, instead of tilting against the windmills of civilization’s decline, went with the flow, enjoyed the farce, embraced the titillation of sense organs and the idea that art existed merely for its own sake. [2]

The kids politely listened as Bill and I more or less had an adult conversation about art and civilization as the classroom clock wound down to dismissal.  As I wrapped up, I told them how much I had enjoyed teaching them.  Bill rose from his chair and said he’d done some calculating and over my career at Porter-Gaud that I’d taught over 30,000 classes and didn’t they feel privileged to be sitting in on the last one.  The kids were standing and clapping, and I was about to lose it until I managed to growl Yeats’ epitaph, “Cast a cold eye/, On life, on death/Horseman, pass by.”

I shook hands with them as they left.  A couple of the girls were teary eyed, but by then, my Bogie mask was back securely in place.

[1]Though behind closed doors for Judy I’ve done more than my share of sobbing.

[2]Until, of course, he found himself on his hands and knees scrubbing the latrines of Reading Gaol.

5 thoughts on “My Last Class

  1. An exhibit of stoicism, heh. Well, the world’s definitely better off bc of your life’s work. I guess it is the best thing you can ever really accomplish in life… q net positive effect.

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