THE HUMILITY IN LEAVES
As winter approaches, the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet sometimes reverberate through my head:
“That time of year thou mayest in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
I’m not moved by the beauty of the lines, though they are beautiful. Rather, I’m reminded of a memory they conjure.
When I was a college student, years ago, I took a class in speech and drama. The professor was a corpulent man, so uneasy in the presence of others that his eyes seldom drifted from the ceiling when he was speaking, almost as if he was obliged to read aloud the words chiseled there.
One of his lessons required students to stand before a lectern in the chapel and recite the above lines not once but several times, giving each word a different emphasis to affect the poem’s meaning. “That Time of year….”; “That time of year…”; “That time of year…” and so forth.
Many of the students dreaded being in this man’s presence as his habit of never looking anyone in the eye made them nervous. What’s more, he created a hulking shadow, like a malevolent spirit, as he sat at the back of the room listening to our performances. More than one reader faltered and was forced to begin again until he got it right.
By the time my turn came to emote, I’d come to see the exercise as silly and the man in charge as bizarre. Standing at center stage and looking out upon the darkened pews, I began to giggle. “That time of year…” Ha, ha. “That time of year…” Ha ha. And so forth until I doubled over with laughter…
I was certain my professor would be outraged. But rebellion has its own rewards. Like Oedipus defying the gods as he plucked out his eyes, my laughter was the purest form of rebellion and I was enjoying it!
Finally I righted myself. Drying my laughter stained eyes, I prepared for a tirade. None followed. What I heard were a few quiet words:
“Thank you Miss Miller. That will suffice.”
With a breath, I’d been dismissed — my existence barely acknowledged and my performance deemed too insignificant for comment. The lesson in humiliation was one I never forgot.
Now when I observe the trees becoming bare ruin’d choirs I think of him and smile, but with greater kindness than before. Once I’d been a student who thought the earth revolved for my pleasure. Then I met a professor who helped to see I was a leaf on a tree like any other.