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The Use of Memory: A Farewell Letter to the Senior Class

On the last day of class, I read the following letter aloud to my seniors—students with whom I’d shared 9th, 11th, and 12th grade literature, composition, and rhetoric classes.

Among my most vivid teaching memories are scenes from my first day of classes. Just a few months distant from the libraries and lecture-halls of college, I stepped into the classroom, my scribbled lesson plans ready at hand. I’d picked up the notion from someone, somewhere, that the goal of a first day of class is simply to conduct whatever occurs in that 55-minute period so that students walk out the doors and mutter together, “That was weird.” Not knowing what sort of students would be waiting in the classroom I was about to enter, I couldn’t wager on what they’d consider “weird”; but I’d done my best at least to put on my lesson plan nothing that I thought they’d expect.

So as class started, I asked no one’s names. I don’t think I mentioned my own name. I certainly didn’t go over a syllabus. I turned my back to the students, wrote a question on the board, and told them to write an answer to it on a piece of scrap paper.

The question was, “Why are you in this room?” Three long minutes of fairly quiet scribbling; then I wrote a second question on the board. “Why are you in this building?” Keep writing, I told them, and don’t let your pencil stop till I say so; if you run out of thoughts, write whatever else comes to mind. Next question: “Why are you in this city?” Then it was “Why are you in this state”—“this country”—“this world”?

What I had planned, in this series of questioning, was to not only start class in a disconcerting manner, but to also shape a deep discussion of the meaning and purpose of existence at the intersection of universality and particularity. (At least, that’s probably how my college-fresh self would have articulated it.)

What I hadn’t planned was (name of student). When I asked for volunteers to read what they’d written, this student began to speak, in a voice promisingly low and solemn for a high school freshman: “I am in this room for English class. Once upon a time, there was a dog named Max . . .” As his low voice rolled on—increasingly interrupted by his higher-pitched giggles—answering every one of my deep questions with the next installment of the story of Max, I pegged him, then and there, as a problem student. And I began to feel a slight trepidation for what the rest of the year might hold.

Clearly, though Pride and Prejudice was on my class booklist, I had yet to learn a few of Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s lessons on first impressions for myself. What the rest of that year held was a store of memories I treasure yet: befriending you with boxes of donuts; being surprised by students who came to class early to write cheerful notes on the board; wheeling a whiteboard to our special spot outside to contemplate Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman beneath the oak trees; munching on cookies while debating ideas from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; playing an impromptu fishbowl game the last day before Christmas break; getting to read poems and stories some of you wrote outside of class and shared with me; camping out at a row of tables at the university library for a research day; and on and on and on. It was a year of watching you all make the acquaintance of ideas and authors I loved—watching with joy as I saw you come to love some of them, too—and, perhaps more, a year for me to make your acquaintance, little suspecting I was coming to know souls I would come to count as friends.

After a year-long intermission, we were back at it again in eleventh grade. And the past two years of reading, talking, writing, debating, laughing, praying, singing (or attempting to!) have added richly to my store of memories, and to the depth of the friendships forged in this room.

But what is the use of these memories, now that they will, in large part, be merely memories, as each of us chooses a road less travelled to take our separate paths? Must the conversations dead-end here, the trains of thought come to an abrupt halt, the friendships freeze in time? What is the use of memory? “Not less of love, but expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation / From the future as well as the past,” says T.S. Eliot. But what does that mean?

When a thing exists in the present, it lies at the mercy of desire; the present is the realm of getting and having, of more and less, of wanting and attaining. And desire, though it can lead us, like Dante, to a beatific vision, can also drive us, like Gatsby, to desecrate and demystify the very object of our longing. So in a rather particular sense, it is only when a thing becomes a memory—when it is translated, as it were, to a realm beyond the present of getting and having and possessing—that it can be loved for its own sake, for its beauty and truth and goodness, rather than for the allurement of possessing it. And thus held in this translated realm, our memories are liberated, and begin to liberate us as we contemplate them—to catch us up with them into the realm of things known and loved for themselves, as in the sunshine-land beyond Plato’s cave.

Over the next few months, the books we have read in this room; the ideas that have moved or angered or excited us in our conversations; each of us sitting round these tables, will become part of one another’s “cabinet of imagination, treasury of reason, registry of conscience, and council chamber of thought.” But as we have learned this year, the kind of memory that shapes life is not one that passively stores experiences, but one that actively contemplates, ponders, interprets, and applies them.

So amidst all the weighty questions and decisions that you, as seniors about to walk the commencement stage, must consider, is this one: Will you live in the light of your memory, calling upon it to guide your decisions and affections in the coming years? Or will you live in the dark of amnesia, forgetting and forsaking what you have here learned?

It is a daily choice, far more subtle and significant than it appears.

Will you suit your taste to the pleasures easily offered your eyes, ears, taste, and touch by popular culture—its tawdry TV shows, its inane music, its titillating images, its depleted diet—or will you seek pleasures that honor the standard of goodness, truth, and beauty you have encountered in the great literature, art, and music of the ages?

Will you float through your job or your education with the lackadaisical goal of “getting by” or “passing the class,” or will you see in your own humble circumstances a quest as significant as Gilgamesh’s for immortality, Achilles’ for glory, Aeneas’ for a country, and Dante’s for the divine?

Will you allow your romance to be shaped by the latest chick-flick or radio hit, or by the (literally) epic love and loyalty, solemnity and sacrifice, of Odysseus’s Penelope and Redcross’s Una?

Will you choose a summer job, an after-school job, a career job, because it will bring you status and comfort and wealth, or because it will give you the opportunity, as C.S. Lewis described, of offering your unique upbringing and talents and circumstances to God Who first gave them to you?

These are not just questions I pose to you. As I am also starting off on a road very new to me this year, I’m keenly aware of the role memory must play in my own life, and by extension, in the life of the new little family that’s starting with me and my husband and the baby inside me. Though I rejoice in what’s ahead, I also grieve for the experiences that will be left behind. Reflecting with you on memory has brought my own heart the comfort, and the challenge, of realizing that the most significant fruits of our time together just might ripen in the upcoming years of pondering, delighting, and understanding the memories of these years.

What is it that I hope to remember?

(Here I spoke to each student in turn, naming a virtue or quality I have appreciated in them and hope to remember and imitate.)

I will treasure these memories of each of you, together with my memories of what we have learned together, as I pray you will as well. Wherever your calling takes you in this next year, as you walk down its streets and sidewalks, I pray you will orient your whole being to the gravity of another world, a world alive in your memory, though forgotten by everyone around you. Let your feet dance to a melody that no one else can hear; let your eyes be captivated by a beatific vision no one else can see; let your very sense of smell be captivated by nostalgia at scents no one else recognizes. Every road leads to Damascus, so tumble down in worship at the call of a Voice no one else hears.

This life of memory, when joined to the grace of our Lord, is what will enable us to fulfill with our lives the prayer we have voiced with our tongues all this year to be instruments of God’s peace, uprooting hatred to sow love, injury for pardon, doubt for faith, despair for hope, darkness for light, sadness for joy—so that, someday, whether in a reunion on this earth, or in the great Final Reunion above, we may sing when we see the fruit of each other’s lives:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow,

Praise Him all creatures here below,

Praise Him above ye heavenly host,

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Until then, I want you each to know that I will be treasuring your memory. And yet, though memory is what I have been speaking of, I very much hope you won’t be only a memory! As Aslan said, “Once a king or a queen in Narnia, always a king or a queen in Narnia”; and I hope that you’ll think of me as once your teacher, always your teacher—or better yet, your friend.

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