By Joseph Ross
When I was a senior at Damien High School in La Verne California, I took an elective English class on Shakespeare. It was taught by Mrs. Carney in a basement typing classroom. I remember the room was always cold, at least by Southern California standards, and the desks were covered with these huge Adler typewriters. All dinosaurs now. Ms. Carney led us through several of Shakespeare’s plays, reading the Folger Shakespeare Library paperback editions. The cover of each paperback showed one of the friezes that adorn the front of the Library here in Washington, D.C. It’s always moving to me to walk right up to those magnificent sculptures now. It takes me right back to that cold basement classroom. Mrs. Carney also used records, LPs of the plays, so we could hear them, as well as read them. I can still hear Richard Burton’s booming voice emerging from an old, scratchy phonograph perched on the teacher’s desk.
But in that modest setting, I fell in love. I fell in love with words, images, and their power to affect us. I remember Mrs. Carney commenting on the multiple times Shakespeare uses images of melting and decomposition in Julius Caesar. I almost didn’t believe her until I found them myself—these repeated, deliberate images, which contributed in their quiet, subtle way, to the overall doom present in that play.
Some years later, on the third floor of Foley Hall at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, (pictured above) where I was an English major, I experienced another remarkable teacher. Sr. Teresita Fay, my professor, was settling into her desk to begin my oral final exam in an upper division poetry class. I was in awe of this learned woman and wanted to prove my knowledge to her. She asked me several questions and I thought I was cruising along fine when suddenly she put her pen down and looked hard at me, asking: How has what we’ve read in this class helped you to live better?
This was a question I had not studied. I was not prepared to make the obvious and essential connection between what I was reading and the quality of my own life. Her question threw me and nothing has been the same since. I don’t remember what I said in response to her question. I guess I got by.
Ever since that exam interview with Sr. Teresita, I have been trying to see and live the connections between literature and life. I have found poems that push me forward into new relationships. I have been compelled by novels to imagine myself in other parts of the world, in the lives of people far from my own. I have to say too, that I have used that question, or some version of it, with many students through my years as a teacher. Simply put, it’s a very good question.
Those efforts, to connect literature to life, are part of the traditional liberal education. I deeply value the conviction that the stories humanity remembers can make us more human. The words and images I fell in love with so many years ago—and have loved since—can make us more insightful, less judgmental, more compassionate, less dismissive, more peaceable, less angry—if we can only keep reading. I hope to keep trying to answer her excellent question. So let me pose it to you: How has what you’ve read helped you to live better?