Twenty years ago on this day I taught my first university writing class at San Diego State University. It was truly one of the happiest days of my life. I had dreamed of teaching writing at SDSU from the moment I learned my ex and I would be moving to San Diego in 1984. I started my San Diego teaching career at SDSU, but teaching ESL in a department of extended studies, not the REAL university.
I did not know that the way teachers were hired was changing, not really in a good way, but in a way that led me to two classes in the department of Rhetoric and Writing. Both were sophomore level classes. I loved my bosses and I loved the campus. Leaving it behind was one of the few difficult things about moving back to Colorado.
I thought it was auspicious that I began my teaching life at SDSU on August 28, 1999, Goethe’s 250th birthday.
I first got to know Goethe in 1998 in the library at a community college where I taught. My students were doing a scavenger hunt for the OED in which, when they found it, they would look up “dork.” I scavenged for a book about Italy because I was in luv’ and going to Italy (maybe) that December to see the man. I found Goethe’s Italian Journey. I’d actually met Goethe superficially a couple of times before on a Zürich street near St. Peter’s Church, but that’s another blog post. I didn’t have my ID card so one of the guys working in the library checked it out for me.
It was the most amazing book I’d read. In it I found the person I most wanted to talk to, the person I most needed to meet.
Wanderer’s Night Song, I (1776)
|Der du von dem Himmel bist,|
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillest,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Erquickung füllest;
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
|Thou that from the heavens art,|
Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Come ah, come into my breast!
Wanderer’s Night Song, II (1782)
|Über allen Gipfeln|
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
|O’er all the hilltops |
Is quiet now,
In all the treetops
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait, soon like these
Thou too shalt rest. (Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
This was no caprice. It has remained a strong and informative — though one-way — relationship.
A year or so later, I taught a couple of little poems by Goethe to my students in a summer literature class. Many of my students said they hated poetry, but you know, you gotta’ do what you gotta’ do. I didn’t realize how much of a dent the little Goethe poems I wrote on the blackboard made until one sunny autumn day one of my students from that class showed up and said, “Did you get my present?”
I looked at her. “No,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed.
She was an African/American woman in her late 30’s who’d come to summer school at a community college where I taught. She brought her son to class every day. The very first day she said, “Don’t teach poetry. I hate it. It doesn’t make sense.” Her goal was a business degree from SDSU. She was working on getting her transfer credits. She succeeded.
I said, “I have to teach poetry. It’s a literature class.” She shrugged.
“Those ladies in the office said they’d give it to you. I guess they forgot. It’s probably in the office somewhere.” We took off for the office and there was a shopping bag tucked away in a corner of the place where faculty mailboxes were. “Here,” she said. “I saw this at a yard sale and I knew I had to give it to you.” She opened it and there was….