This was going to be a post about how bleak the start of winter can sometimes feel, but I'm going to try to put a positive spin on it as best I can and make a link to Dartmouth, that beloved college of mine.
Two weeks ago I was getting Noah undressed on a changing table at the local baby clinic in order to get him weighed; next to me was a blonde woman was about to do the same with her little girl, who looked to be a couple of months younger than Noah. After a brief conversation about North American accents, the woman mentioned that she had a friend nearby who grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she had gone to college, and lo and behold, I was speaking to a Dartmouth '95! It was quite a random connection to make just off the busy Norwood Road in SE London. Turns out she's also married to an Englishman and has a 2-year-old son as well as a 3-month-old daughter, so we arranged to visit them this week. It was fun to see the boys play together and think that years ago, in a land far away, their mommies spent one year together on campus without knowing each other!
On Friday I woke up to my usual selection of emails - mostly junk - and clicked on a link to an article from the eDartmouth that began "beloved art history prof passes". Although I could never be considered the most studious art history student, I did end up with a minor in the subject and thought I might know the professor. In all honesty, I expected it to be about an older, probably male professor, possibly a professor emeritus or someone who'd taught there even before my time. I was deeply saddened to see that instead, it was a vivacious and beautiful female professor, one I'd had in her first year, and my last year, at the College, who had passed away, evidently to cancer. I spent most of the day - which happened also to be very grey and bleak here in London - feeling incredibly saddened by this news. I felt sorry that I had not been a better student under her tutelage, as one of my poorest academic shows in my 4 years at Dartmouth involved this professor.
It was either fall or winter term of our last year, and at the beginning of the exam of the survey course she taught, she announced that for extra credit, we could list names of the artists we'd studied over the term...there were probably in excess of 300 names or so who were mentioned or studied in depth during the course. I had probably pulled one of my infamous all-nighters in preparing for the exam, and in a sleep-deprived fog I failed to remember this challenge as I wrapped up the last question. In the hallway afterwards, I met Beth (and one other of my 3 Dorrance roomies - Amy, was it you?), and realized only then that I had failed to do the extra credit! I ran back into the room, where the kind and generous professor was turning off the slide projector and packing up. I explained that I'd forgotten to do the extra credit. "All right," she said, "just tell me some names then." My mind started whirring to process the request, and I came up with...nothing. Not one name. Completely mortified, I just stood there in the hallway, unspeaking, until she said that I could accompany her to her office where it would be easier to perhaps write them down. In her office, I was able to come up with, maybe 2 names, before we agreed that the moment of the exam, the stress, the adrenaline, were gone, and that it was likely a lost cause. I felt utterly useless as a student, and remember having a fairly major meltdown later that day at the missed and wasted opportunity.
On Friday, I relived those moments as I remembered her and felt guilty once again that I had not been able to do better when she showed me generosity and kindness at extending the chance for the extra credit even when she could have just said, sorry, the exam is over (in fact, I think she may have initially said that, but I convinced her to let me try, and then failed miserably, which probably enhanced my humiliation). I shed some tears as I thought of the husband she leaves, also an art history professor at the College. I went and had a nap with Noah, and cried myself to sleep as I replayed the words from the article that she was survived by her parents; how unfair and cruel life is for any parent to have a child precede them in death. Later in the day I wondered to myself whether I had tried to explain myself to her in writing about the poor exam show - an apology of sorts that it wasn't down to her teaching - and I hoped that I had. I can't be sure though. I hoped for her sake that she had many more good students than unremarkable ones, as she was, by all accounts, a remarkable art historian and person. Mainly, I was just saddened at the way in which life can take even those who seem deserving of more time.
And so it was that a very sad death has led me to hum the words of one of my father's favorite songs about Dartmouth, not the Alma Mater, but a lesser-known one: Dartmouth Undying, whose lyrics are here:
Dartmouth, there is no music for our singing
No words to bear the burden of our praise
Yet how can we be silent and remember
The splendor and fullness of her days
Who can forget her soft September sunsets
Who can forget those hours that passed like dreams?
The long cool shadows floating on the campus
The drifting beauty where the twilight streams?
Who can forget her sharp and misty mornings,
The clanging bells, the crunch of feet on snow,
Her sparkling noons, the crowding into Commons,
The long white afternoons, the twilight glow?
See! By the light of many thousand sunsets,
Dartmouth Undying, like a vision starts.
Dartmouth, the gleaming, dreaming walls of Dartmouth,
Miraculously builded in our hearts.
—Franklin McDuffee ’21
Upon further reflection, maybe it's the way in which this song actually seems to paint a picture of the College campus that has led me to think of it - perhaps a connection to art? I actually think it's just that it has a sad tune, or that it highlights the passage of time that all of those who spend time at Dartmouth - students, staff or faculty - will encounter. But how lucky we are to have known life there, and to know that the beauty of the place will hopefully live on, even after we depart.
Here is a rendition by the Aires for those who don't know the song: