Professor Norton Looks back and ahead — with Passion!

Professor Norton stands on the back porch

Last year students selected Professor Ann Norton as the Fr. Gerald McCarthy Teacher of the Year. Ten minutes in her classroom would tell you why and listening to her sing on the stage tells you that teaching literature and writing is but one of her talents. Take in her inspiring words at the beginning of this new semester:

Think of words you love and learn their Latin (or Greek, or Middle English, or Old French) roots: they will teach you much, as Malcolm X learned in prison when he read the dictionary cover to cover. “Integrity” comes from integer:whole, untouched, unhurt, undamaged, complete, or entire. Less obviously, “gentle” comes from gentilis, of a gens, of one's family, or from gent-, gens, nation, which is akin to Latin gignere, to beget. Interesting: the quality of “having or showing a kind and quiet nature,” “the opposite of harsh or violent,” connects to kinship, to conception itself.

Last winter I learned that “passion” comes from the Latin pati, to suffer, and the Anglo-French passio, suffering, being acted upon. As a singer and lover of country music—and before you groan and smirk, readers, know that I mean good country music, classic and alt country and Americana, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Dwight Yoakam and Gillian Welch and Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt—I should not have been surprised. And no professor at a Catholic college should be taken aback at the connection between passion and suffering. Still, I was. When I think of passion, I think of the pleasure of loving something intensely, whether it’s a person or a place or a song or an art work or an extra-dark chocolate truffle. So do my students, apparently. When I mentioned to my former Honors Conversatio seminar that passion’s roots are in suffering, they looked at me in horror.

This year in the English department we witnessed the mix of passion and suffering up close when Professor Lupo’s three-year-old son Henry was diagnosed with an infant sarcoma that necessitated immediate, extreme treatments. We all know the passion of parental love, either as children or parents; we all shrink from the thought of children suffering pain and facing mortality too soon. Having taught at St. A’s for twenty years now, however, I know how our community handles life’s inevitable tragedies. We rally round; we give time, money, food, professional assistance, whatever will lessen pressure and express our love. Professor Gleason suggested a benefit concert starring Anselmian musicians and their friends, and it took flight: Professor Magnuson offered to produce it, students and staff volunteered to run a bake sale and handle the donations, and people from outside and inside our community came and listened and gave. At this point, more than $11,000 has been raised for Henry. (Shameless self-promotion: you can find my band, The Joshua Incident, on Facebook, and there are several videos from the concert on YouTube)

Seniors, too, know the blend of love and suffering that comes with the end of their four years here. Every April and May, as the warmth and green return, I have heard it in the halls and in my office and classrooms, and now I see it on Facebook: amazement that they are done with the stress of papers and exams and homework, grief that they have left their beloved college behind and become alumni. It’s hard on professors, too, as we tell our seniors at the champagne reception on the last day of classes. They leave; we remain. It’s bittersweet for us all. I feel the urge to quote Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” which my Romantic literature class will read with me in a few weeks.

Feel the gladness of the May!

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now forever taken from my sight,

Thought nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, or glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic mind.

And what “remains behind,” of course, is Saint Anselm College, our English department, and new and returning students as we begin a new academic year in the summer’s waning warmth and light, all the more precious for our knowledge of what’s to come. We welcome a new Communication professor, Dr. Carmen McClish; we appreciate anew Dr. Ed Gleason in his last year of teaching (but not his last year playing saxophone on campus, because I for one will now allow him to retire that); and we begin our new curriculum in earnest, with the whole freshman class participating in Conversatio and the entire student body taking four courses for four credits each. Wordsworth speaks of our faith, our search for the “philosophic mind” that acknowledges and celebrates all connotations of passion. May your search be fruitful in this fresh fall semester and beyond.

I began with Wordsworth and I will let W.H. Auden—whom we began to read today in Postmodern British Literature—conclude for me (not something I would allow in a student paper, but there are advantages to seniority).

O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

 

O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbor

With your crooked heart.