I title this bi-monthly column, â€œThe Short List,â€ because I intend as my subject whatever is at the top of my concerns, interests, irritations, despairs or delights â€“ you get the idea â€“ as I compose the essay.
That being my plan, it shames me to confess that Iâ€™ll be lying in this first one: Â my No. 1 concern interest (see paragraph above) is the acclimation of two young cats from feral to housebound. Â Right now the new home of Tux and Atticus is my screened back porch, safely separated from the unseemly curiosity of my two tame cats, the recently adopted stray part-Schnauzer and the poodle pack.
After only a bit of careful consideration, I realized that reflection on this adventure, fascinating as it is to me, would appeal only to a handful of crazy cat ladies and a few colleagues who get pleasure from scanning whatever I write so they can note errors in grammar and phrasing.
Of course, I donâ€™t have any idea what my readership is â€“ if it exists at all â€“ Â but Iâ€™m sure feral cat rescue isnâ€™t a hot topic. Â So, I turn to No. 2 on my â€œshort list:â€ Â beginning another academic year.
Iâ€™ve read the first two issues of this student-edited paper, and two articles, in particular, moved me â€“ Leslie Barrettâ€™s â€œWould You Still Be My Friend?â€ in which she describes her changed life after contracting Lyme disease which led to Bellâ€™s Palsy, and first year Julie Robinsonâ€™s comments on â€œtransitional difficulties.â€
Although thereâ€™s great disparity in the challenges these two writers explore, they both motivate me to consider one of the qualities which I believe has always and must always be a fundamental characteristic of members of this community, both the old and the young â€“ the necessity to be kind.
Decades ago I quit lecturing from a podium at the front of the classroom, instructing my students on what they should conclude about our readings â€“ â€œErdrichâ€™s message here isâ€¦â€ or â€œThe meaning of this stanza isâ€¦â€ Â or â€œThe most memorably drawn character in this novel must beâ€¦â€ – Â I began, instead, to lead discussions of the text.
What could be more fun and more challenging, I reasoned, than sitting around a room with a group of other intelligent, articulate people, examining a text â€“ welcoming one anotherâ€™s opinions, agreeing or disagreeing with them in civil discourse? Â (Okay, rescuing feral cats could, but I promised that was not my topic.)
Leading such sessions and having them go well requires, obviously, a certain level of patience and self-control from both professor and students, so I include in my â€œcourse policiesâ€ two admonitions: â€œIn discussions and in critiquing the work of peers, be respectful, civil, and constructive,â€ and, â€œBe attentive and engaged in class. Consider the possibility that occasional hypocrisy is better than rudeness, engagement better than disengagement.â€
I saw â€œMean Girlsâ€ long before Lohan went awry, and Iâ€™ve read Atwoodâ€™s â€œCatâ€™s Eyeâ€ more than once, so I know that adolescents can be remarkably snarky, but, gee, here we all are at this remarkable institution â€“ in this supportive community, populated by the intellectually gifted â€“ with a chance for a fresh start. Â Fresh not only in the way we treat others, but also in the way we treat ourselves.
Since many reading this have no earthly idea who I am, I choose to underscore my theme by quoting a few writers whose advice, perhaps, you will heed.
Ms. Anonymous: â€œEveryone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.â€
The poet, Stevie Smith: â€œI was too far out all my life/and not waving but drowning.â€
Novelist, Herman Hesse: â€œIt is only important to love the world and to treat ourselves and all beings with love, admiration, and respect.â€
And, hoping you will take his language in context and not be overly offended, from my all-time favorite, Kurt Vonnegut: Â â€œHello, babies. Â Welcome to earth. Â Itâ€™s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Â Itâ€™s round and wet and crowded. Â At the outside, babies, youâ€™ve got about a hundred years here. Â Thereâ€™s only one rule I know of, babies: God damn it, youâ€™ve got to be kind.â€
I spent my first full day of work on the Trinity campus on June 15, 1958, so, although you might calculate the years and conclude that surely Iâ€™m addled, ignore that, risk trusting me simply because Iâ€™ve been here so long, and practice what I preach in my first of this yearâ€™s Short Lists.
You wonâ€™t regret it.
Coleen Grissom is a professor of English.