Hah! It’s an old conundrum for English professors: 3:00 in the afternoon, teaching classic literature to bored twenty year olds most of whom could not possibly care less about Don Quixote, Milton, Chaucer, et al. Animal House got there and nailed it: “Listen, I’m not joking. This is my job!” Henry here is “tired in the cortex, flat // out, but upright” yet at the same time, “wise with notes.” There’s the situation. It’s complicated by an approaching storm as he drags to class over the parking lot, and isn’t the juxtaposition interesting? Listen, he’s telling the class, if not directly like in the wicked satirical Animal House scene, then he betrays it through a deep listlessness that no superficial enthusiasm can mask: This is my job. Let’s just get it over with. So much for literary reputation, for artistic immortality, the ascendant of the virtual second-self, the famed doppelganger ghosting through transcendent time—only to knock poor helpless sophomores to sleep like they’ve been gassed. At the same time, back here in the actual world, there is real-time electric weather. Everybody loves a good storm.
What do those students in class care about? Lying in each others’ arms, of course, though in 1962, that was probably a bit less commonly indulged in than it is these days, but even about that I’m not so sure. Social mores evolve in and out of varying degrees of erotic laissez faire, but young men and women have always had each other on their minds and acted on that whether it was encouraged by their elders or not. But right now, in class, they’re so bored they’re not even interested in the storm coming. That’s bad. Another poem about boredom, but boredom is not the real issue of this poem. Exhaustion is the issue.
Teachers share knowledge, but that’s only a fraction of their responsibility. Teachers demonstrate how to orient toward what’s being taught, and they can’t fake it, because students may be young, inexperienced, distracted, or bored, but they’re also perceptive and smart, and usually they really are there to learn. They look to teachers for guidance and will adopt whatever the teacher suggests through how he models it. If the teacher is exhausted, then students find themselves fighting off an overwhelming sleepiness—because they’re sharp students. Bring a little electrical potential to the front of the room and sparks can fly, bright enough to rival the lightning in the storm outside. Even with Milton and Cervantes. I’ve been at the center of it lots of times.