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By Gerry Boyle'78
There are moments that define this place; this is one.
Nine o'clock on a Wednesday morning in September. Twenty-one first-year students assembled in Miller 14, a classroom at the Roberts end of Miller Library. Bare feet in sandals. A couple of baseball hats on backwards. Nervous chuckles and expectant glances. Professor Cedric Bryant enters the room. For these Colby students, college has begun.
Bryant introduces himself. He asks if the students have read The Great Gatsby. Many raise their hands. He says they must recall the second-to-last sentence. He recites it with care, the words held up to the class like a string of precious stones: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
The class is 30 seconds old.
Bryant is serious to the point of gravity. The question, he says, is what Fitzgerald did mean to teach us about language with this single sentence. "How does this sentence do what it does?"
He refers to rhetoric, in its classical sense, then asks what it means today as a pejorative term. The question hangs in the air. Bryant waits. The silence grows palpable; the first-year, first-day reticence bends but doesn't break. Bryant waits longer and then he says, "What did you think we were going to begin class by doing? Sitting around talking about what you did on your summer vacation?"
There's an awkward silence, but it's brief. And then they're off. A student answers, "manipulation." There's discussion of the word "equivocate" and a reference to irony in the Fitzgerald sentence. Bryant quotes Toni Morrison on the craft of writing: "The seams can't show. . . . The language can't sweat." He recites Emily Dickinson: "The world is not conclusion. . . ."
"It is not just the words that are important," he says. "It's the spaces in between them."
Alliteration. Syntax. Metaphor or trope. The meanings and implications of borne and born, the sailing imagery in the sentence, the weight of the word "beat." It is 9:28.
And what the students have experienced, and we have witnessed, is a launching, to hold to the nautical (with apologies to Fitzgerald). In that classroom and in many others on the Colby campus that morning, professors strode to the front of the ramp, swung the bottles towards the bow and gave their assembled students a shove. Down the ways they went and into the current, heading out of the harbor with assignments in hand, reading due by Friday.
After Bryant's class, they were a bit blown away. "I was really surprised at how intense it was today," said Aspen Foreman '05 of Delta, Colo.
Said Stanislav Presolski '05 of Bulgaria, "I have to say it was great. I was enchanted by the professor, the way he spoke."
So that's what we do here, to borrow from Charlie Bassett, who himself has enchanted legions of Colby students over the decades. This snapshot is just a reminder, as another school year begins, that teaching and learning are noble endeavors, really. Because when these students leave as very different people four years from now, "the seams can't show."
Impossible Image: Eating disorders can develop when societal pressures overwhelm students
The World of David Patrick Columbia
Indomitable Subtext: In the life of Hanna Roisman, the Holocaust is an ever-present undercurrent
September 11: Words Are All We Have
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College Colby Magazine 4181
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