- In Search of a Golden Bird upon a Bough of Memory
I once had a teacher of literature who, most of the semester, put me in mind of a frightened angel. Years later, remembering his spare body and reflective presence, I thought of Yeats’s golden bird upon a golden bough. I wasn’t alone in such aviary comparisons. Nearly fifty years after being his student, the noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said this teacher reminded him of a giant crane or a great blue heron. Though I could not know it at the time, this contemplative birdlike man would be the most extraordinary teacher I ever had.
The circumstances for such an encounter were highly improbable. Nothing about the school suggested such a teacher. The newly opened, densely urban campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, known locally as Chicago Circle, hadn’t even been a four-year school until a few days earlier but was a two-year campus located on a narrow strip of concrete jutting out seven-eighths of a mile into Lake Michigan. Navy Pier, it was called then, after decades of use in commercial shipping; later it was a hastily built campus for the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. To its commuter students from 1946 through 1964, it was simply the Pier: a seemingly unending tunnel of battleship-gray classrooms that looked more like a bleak factory than a college campus.
In February 1965 the campus shifted from Navy Pier to a nearly mile-square plot of urban-renewal land that had been forcibly wrenched from its largely Italian-American residents. Their homes and stores were demolished, and a handful of university buildings was soon erected. The buildings were identical pods: two stories of pebble-filled concrete with narrow vertical slits for windows. The classrooms were identical: thirty-two black wrought-iron chair-desks bolted to the floor in four rows. To many people these buildings resembled the nearby Cook County Jail, not a college. That semester the new campus was a chaos of mud, debris, and construction. Ornery orange machines were moving, [End Page 223] hauling, lifting, erecting all day every day. The roar of their exhaust pipes was the cacophony of our spheres. It was hardly the place to encounter an angel, a crane, a heron, or Yeats’s golden bird.
On a cold morning in late February I was sitting in a second-floor classroom of one of these interchangeable pods when a tall thin man wearing a navy-blue overcoat, gray fedora, brownish suit, white shirt, and necktie came into the room. He put his satchel on the desk, pulled out a syllabus for English 256, American literature from 1865 to the present, and announced he was James Stronks. He was forty-four years old then, and I was twenty-four.
I was struck by this man’s simple, spare elegance. His brow was high and narrow; his sandy hair, thinning; his eyes, blue, direct, and keen; his body, tall, lean, erect, and angular. He seemed stripped to the bone—reserved, formal, professional—not like an IBM salesman, but like a monk dressed in a suit. What I most noticed that first day, however, was his great interiority. It was as if he had taken only as much body as necessary to house being and knowing. Yet on that first day, and for some time to come, I did not think of Stronks as a great teacher. I was used to a different kind of excellence, teaching that was more present and rational. Stronks seemed too hesitant, too distant, too interior to be a great teacher.
I had come from five and a half years (1959–1964) as a part-time student at Wright Junior College, one of Chicago’s City Colleges—and had one full-time semester on the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. In both places I had been taught by superb teachers.
At Wright Sid Berman paced up and down the aisles of our classroom in a bow tie and rolled-up sleeves, peppering us with one penetrating question after another about the texts for that semester: Ortega y...