Joy is a shared discovery. Picture this, thirty-six years ago. An art history teacher showed his class a series of photographic slides he took during a trip to Mexico, and afterwards a student went home and thought about what she saw. The next day she asked the teacher to compare one of the slides to an image buried in a forgotten 1930’s magazine her dad had hoarded forever. See it there? This carving compared to that decoration, and the class was the first to see the match.
Joy is when people find out, together, what no one had correlated before. A fifty-year-old, and a bunch of twenty-year-olds, shared a moment of elation, in the spring of 1986.
He wouldn’t get this emotion from his fellow teachers. And the students didn’t inspire eagerness talking about this at the dorm party. The unobtanium moment was theirs, only, when the light came on in the classroom. Those minds, with a mixture of concentration, innocence and eagerness, were led to the mental equivalent of a lock popping open in their hands.
I loved that classroom elation.
I was there. I saw it, I felt it, I want to bottle that feeling and keep it with me, spill it when I need its scent on my life when I’m out and there’s a discovery with no one to share. As what tends to happen, in my adventures today.
I was there when Dr. Mahoney, chair of the North Adams State College art department, set up his slides for our class. He wanted to present not an overview but a study of good depth; he loathed overviews that spread Ancient American art like thin butter on bread.
He chose me to help pick his slides because on the previous weekend, we’d gone to an artifact exhibit. He had invited the class to come on the Saturday morning trip, and he’d offered to pay for admission. His truck, he said, could take perhaps five or six students, first come first served. No extra credit for coming, and no demerit for staying home. I was the only one who showed. We made it worthwhile that day.
We saw a near-hidden symbol on an artifact that not only meant the museum’s display was mis-identified, but the item was being presented sideways. A shared discovery, complete with the classroom-like elation, between two men.
Dr. Mahoney was a sight to see! He pulled out his notebook and his large magnifying glass, fulfilling all the visual cliches of an absorbed archeologist. I couldn’t offer anything but support, but to be honest, I think my companionship made it work for him. I’d like to believe that was true.
In those days I remember thinking that a college education was like an afternoon at a river bank. We students were of free will, and with equal opportunity to use the resource. How many of us were going to access the water, and how much use would each of us choose?
At this river, you could spend your time sleeping– many did.
Or you could get yourself to that river and take a good long drink. You could put your hands on the rocks, get close to the water and get your body and self immersed– you chose the limit. How did that invigorate you?
How did the sensations, unique to this place, react with your being– all that you brought there? Where did this river’s experience take your thoughts? What did you in turn show others, later and now, when you were motivated to lead and create? From here, where?
If you came this far to sit still, you came this far for very little. If you parked yourself on the river bank’s grass and didn’t really explore the left and the right, you took a space that another young adult would have wanted.
Today, I’m far from that old-school, decidedly-analog classroom at Bowman Hall. The building’s still there but the place is gone; our sounds are dead, but our waves still ripple, a long way off. Our experiences were dismantled and packed up decades ago. I mourn that loss. I mourn all good things gone.
I have had to pocket Dr. Mahoney, as well as my classmates. That’s right, I’ve miniaturized and transported the girl from Adams, Massachusetts, who’d pushed her evening further, when she’d dug through dad’s magazines. The girl who rushed into class one day, eager to tell us her hunch, gave a lesson all herself.
My class– disparate, many of us, united, all of us. We were young adults who looked different from each other but were homogeneous in our curiosity about that river. We were one sweeping force in our acceptance to learn from what this man introduced to us that semester. We started out seeking a good grade, and ended up working to our own satisfaction.
My classmates, you didn’t have to show up in the parking lot that Saturday to get the full river experience, because the full river experience didn’t require you to drink from it 24/7. The essence of the river analogy was to take advantage of it, as much as you could. I didn’t read textbooks as deeply as some of you did, or explore other avenues like some of you did. How did we make up for those independent moments where we didn’t fully engage?
Here’s what I did. I listened to those of you who’d done the deep reading. I listened to those of you who sought off-the-reading-list materials. I got your excitement. Respected what you’d done with your time. I was open to changing, which at its heart, is simply to aspire.
And you listened to me, when I told you about what we got straight at the museum exhibit. Because I was the one who spotted and identified the symbol.
As with all the great schoolrooms, learning was accomplished at levels. We learned what was told to us, on one level. And we learned to change ourselves, when we saw examples that our peers set, when those students made efforts to enrich the studied material.
My class is still with me.
My pocket class has transformed itself over the years. Dr. Mahoney is in my head, of course, and with a broader capacity to reciprocate outside of the interest of the Art of Ancient Americas. What I mean to say is, when I’m alone, and make a discovery, I imagine my teacher getting excited about it too, no matter the subject. Because in the day, he was informing me of many things. His voice would say something like this: “What we are learning is transportable. The subject matter will change. The moments of our exposure will change. What remains constant is the joy we experience, the shared discovery of a given circumstance.”
“Don’t worry about writing it down,” said Dr. Mahoney, “this won’t be on the test. We’re talking about a resonation that will carry long and far, that will sound loud sometime down the road even though you can’t hear it now.”
I’m in a forest. It’s 12:45PM, January 24th, 2022. The pine trees deep in South Carolina are plentiful and precious.
Many people drive past this forest. A few walk past it. Nearly no one ventures inside. It’s sunny, I’m going in.
The floor is soft and lumpy, and I wonder, what is each hump? Red-brown pine needles cover these large masses, in hundreds of years of accumulation. As I walk, my arms, face and neck break bonds, I can feel thin vines pulling and snapping, invisible until confounded by me. Dr. Mahoney, what do you think? Because here’s my thought: I’m not supposed to be here; I’d better be making this worthwhile.
Dr. Mahoney, see this. I think– yes! Take a look. These heavy ridges underfoot are fallen pines, with nothing to break them down, and no one to take them away.
I stop and other ideas race into my mind. Pocket class, I need all of you with me.
When things aren’t right in one place in my life, I feel off in all places, other aspects of my life that aren’t unbalanced. When I’m not producing at work, at my job, it pushes everything else out of kilter, and there’s no recompense for that.
Class, does the light go on, for any of you?
In the forest, the thoughts continue. I’m unexpectedly filled with gratitude, I want to say to the good people of the world who have touched my life, “Thank you for making it so easy to get to know you.” Thank you for the unexpected Teams video call, just to see how I’m doing. Thank you for the handwritten card in the mail, which I keep by my desk and look at frequently.
And to the indifferent I say, “There are way too many of you around.” You did not do yourself any service, at your chance by the river.
Dr. Mahoney’s voice tells me: “There’s a big sign in the center of town that reads, ‘Honor The Pines.’ Did you see it?”
“Yes,” I say, “I’m honoring them.”
“Set yourself aside. Who wrote that sign? Why did they write it, and when? Those are the questions to ask. Is the message still a value to the people who live here? What has changed, and don’t tell me simply, ‘the progress of time’. What started, and what remains? This is all part of our investigation. As we examine what’s here.
“This was what we prepared you for. Back in class we gave you such a concentration of work, because we knew time would dilute most of the lessons. You have carried a tiny speck of that concentration. See how it can flourish, several decades forward? It’s enough to work for you.
“In our classroom, no one told you to grow up. So your grew as you did. You are seeing, and linking, what’s here, to what’s in your life. Keep digging! Keep looking.”
Around me, fallen trees are leaning on live ones. Here’s a fallen tree, let me get close. It’s bending the live pine quite a bit. How long will it be a burden? Will the living tree ever be free, to be straight again? What has it missed, pushed crooked this way? Or maybe, what has it gained, with its apparent obligation?
Adams girl, can you relate? You were great at thinking outside the classroom. Great at bringing in other evidence to shore up something else that was presented to you. The visible burden is what’s evident, right? Is it a burden, or was it a save? Saving another, a weaker one of its kind, from the great fall to the forest floor. Is that the missing piece? Saving a sick or dead mate from a hundred years covered in pine needles, and a dreadful endurance away from the sun?
Adams girl, you’re smiling. Dr. Mahoney, come see what we’ve discovered!
Opening up expression for those who’ve been closed to it, is what I’m close to when I trample about. The state of matter I stumble across in these pines can best be understood if I have the human experiences to relate them to. Class, this is why I’m here. This is what we were being prepared for.
Trees are rubbing in the wind, making bulky sounds as they chafe each other. Their voice is not a complaint, but a proclamation: “Tell them the trees are talking and tell them what we are saying to you!”
I can only write in one moment but can reach many moments in time. No one told the forest to grow flat. So it grows as it does.