Tears on the bench


In 2001 I got a great job. Young and freshly minted, I landed a tenure track professorship at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college – a “Seven Sister” – outside of Philadelphia. I have no memories of my first day of teaching. On the second day I walked across the turreted and gargoyled campus to teach a freshman seminar in a fieldstone mansion set among gigantic trees. My class was waiting for me, and we began to play, babies together, at professor-and-students. Then a colleague appeared at the door. “You all need to come with me,” she said. The date was 9/11, and the first tower had been struck . . . Two vast and trunkless legs of stone . . . My colleague ushered us into a packed classroom and we watched as that smoking monument, soon joined in flames by its twin, fell. I grew up as a teacher that day. My colleagues and I collectively invented a new, non-game: “how to be fully present for young women, some in their first days away from home, many of them from New York City, on 9/11.” I did a lot of things before the sun set. But I didn’t cry.

I can’t read Walt Whitman’s “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field Last Night” without wanting to cry. I teach the poem in an upper-level seminar called “Dead Presidents,” a class about the cult of Founding Fathers. The class looks at the years between the funerals of George Washington in 1799, and Abraham Lincoln in 1865. We read all sorts of great stuff, like Hawthorne’s House of the 7 Gablesand Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” and Apess’ “Eulogy on King Philip.” We end with a deep dive into Whitman, especially his Lincoln poems, but we spend a lot of time with Drum Taps and especially “Vigil Strange.” . . . Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading. . . I read it out loud to my students, every time. I’m sure my voice quavers. But I’ve never actually shed a tear.


Here’s a little lesson about crying – historical crying – from another class I teach, “Literatures of American Indian Removal.” Once upon a time, the State of New Hampshire tried to claim Dartmouth College as its state university. In 1818, the case went to the Supreme Court, where John Marshall, as chief justice, presided. Dartmouth was represented by Daniel Webster. . . . It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college, and yet, there are those who love it . . . In an impassioned speech, Webster cited love as the private passion that draws a fairy circle of protection around the small college, keeping away publics that cannot possibly feel correctly. Webster’s oratory was so moving that the great judge wept openly on the bench. John Marshall, who shaped the Supreme Court into the powerful third arm of government that we now rely on it to be, was moved to tears.

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