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In bed with the Bard

I just returned from New England where I was fortunate enough to go back to my alma mater and speak to students, faculty, and folks from the community. It was the most intimidating public speaking experience I’ve ever had — because many of these folks were the very ones who taught me how to think and then helped me discover how to inform my thinking. It was one of the best nights of my life — kind of coming full circle from my college years, returning to campus as a paid speaker and being able to chastise students for not voting, encourage them to become writers (except do it better/earlier/more effectively than I did), and to lecture the very professors who once lectured me.

I talked about integrity — how I struggle with it, how I fall so short of my own ambition in this regard. How I think integrity is the measure of who and what we are and how it affects how deeply and by whom we are loved and able to love in return. How I feel it — integrity — is the key aspect of character that makes or breaks us in our person and in our relationships.

God, I wish I were better at it.

Anyway, here’s a column I wrote in April 2007 about the same subject — about integrity and one of the professors who, though now long since retired, came back to campus to attending my reading last week. No wonder I was intimidated.

In bed with the Bard

When I first encountered Shakespeare’s plays in college, it was if my mind had found a place to live. “Hamlet,” “Richard III,” “Henry V,” “King Lear” – these works changed my interior landscape from black and white to Technicolor.

Shakespeare blew the lid off what I had known and understood about the bewilderment, love, and loss that make up man’s existence, but his plays were also mirrors in which I saw, for the first time, the not-always-innocent machinations of my own ego.

I studied Shakespeare with Dr. Henry Vittum, professor of literature at Plymouth State University (New Hampshire), who also taught my Advanced Composition class. And though he would probably admonish the hyperbole, Dr. Vittum taught me nearly everything I know about critical thinking and writing well.

As students, we had to keep a journal which we’d turn in on a weekly basis. Dr. Vittum’s return comments, written in distinctive penmanship along the margins of our pages, would prod us along in our understanding of the plays. It was an intimate, liberating dialog between professor and student.

After writing last week’s “True Lies” column, I continued to grapple with the idea of speaking the truth when negative ramifications are likely. Thumbing through my dog-eared copy of “King Lear,” I found Lear’s warning to his daughter, Cordelia, “Mend your speech a little, Lest it may mar your fortunes.” I felt a dullness in my gut when I recalled how I had so easily done for professional aspirations what Cordelia so steadfastly would not do for familial ones.

I dragged out my college notebooks and flipped through the yellowing pages of my Shakespeare journal until I found my writings on Cordelia’s conundrum. Was it nobler, I had asked, to be a Cordelia who speaks plainly and honestly but is banished by her father, or be a Kent, who through self-disguise and some deceit preserves his proximity to the king he loves. At the end of my entry, I’d scribbled “I can’t say which path is best….”

Dr. Vittum’s response hit me harder this time around. “You can’t be both a Cordelia and a Kent,” he had written, “Unfortunately, the choice must be made.”

In another entry, I had earnestly, if somewhat dramatically, railed against the difficulties of choosing how to live: “Oh, Dr. Vittum, I wonder if it’s even possible to live one’s life with unfaltering integrity!”

In his response, Dr. Vittum gave a rare glimpse of his private self:

“I believe with all the strength of my being that it is possible ‘to live one’s life with unfaltering integrity.’ It has been my life’s standard.”

His response was one of the few definitive and sure answers I’ve ever received — before or since — from anyone, about anything. So few of us know what we believe, much less believe it with such conviction.

Those classes are long ago now, but Shakespeare has become a constant friend and teacher. His words have never let me down. They’ve never stopped stopping me in my awestruck tracks with their mastery of language and insight into human nature.

I rarely read in bed, but in times of true sadness or confusion, I’m known to tuck whatever Shakespeare I’m reading under my pillow before going to sleep. Silly, I know, but his words offer such comfort in times of loss or worry, that I can’t help but want them close.

Those who teach give gifts not just of education but of opportunity. Teachers painstakingly draw out and cultivate the best aspects of a growing mind and spirit. A few teachers have the special gift of imparting a sense of hope and faith to their students, even when the rest of the world seems bleak and dark.

My world, while not exactly dark before I went to college, was certainly less filled with light. All the professors at my college turned on lights in rooms of my mind I didn’t even know existed. But it was Dr. Vittum who – through his careful and gentle teaching of Shakespeare – showed me a light that would illuminate my spirit.

I was just one of many students, but I hope somehow my professor knows what a gift his teaching was to me … and that his gift is with me still.

Posted on November 3rd, 2008Comments RSS Feed
2 Responses to In bed with the Bard
  1. Glad you had such an awesome time at PSU. Remember, the best teachers never stop being students. I’ve got to believe they were very proud. And if everyone had your integrity…wow, just imagine.

  2. I know that Professor Vittum is very proud of you. He has told me so. My conversations about your time on campus lead me to believe that you most certainly made an impact while you visited. I hope you can find the time to do it again.

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