Dec. 14, 2007

Farewell to Teaching

by George Johnston

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Poem: "Farewell to Teaching" by George Johnston, from The Essential George Johnston. © The Porcupine's Quill, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Farewell to Teaching

Knowing what I now know
would I have consented
to be born? Next question.
When it comes time to go
will I go forlorn or
contented? Ask again.
Anything in between
should be easier. O
K, what made up my mind
to come to Carleton? Work.
My kind of work was not
easy to come by, I
came by it at Carleton;
it was simple as that
and lucky, plain lucky.
I cannot account for luck
but I can be grateful.
What was my kind of work?
Presumably teaching,
whatever that may be.
Teaching is a kind of
learning, much like loving,
mutual goings-on,
both doing each to each;
mutual forbearance;
life itself, you might say.
Whatever teaching is
did I enjoy it? Yes.
Am I glad to leave it?
Even of life itself
enough is enough. Good-
bye Dow's Lake, goodbye Tower,
essays, papers, exams,
you I can bear to leave.
But how shall I improve
the swiftly-dimming hour?
I shall deteriorate
amid bucolic dreams
and gather in my fate;
there's lots worse ways than that.

Goodbye good friends. Alas,
some goodbyes are like death;
they bring the heart to earth
and teach it how to die.
Earth, here we come again,
we're going out to grass.
Think of us now and then,
we'll think of you. Goodbye.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Shirley Jackson, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1919), who married a Jewish man against her parents' wishes and went to live in a small town in Vermont where she developed a reputation for eccentricity. The local townspeople talked about her behind her back, calling her a Communist, a witch, an atheist, and a Jew. She felt as though everyone was watching her and judging her, and she began to dread leaving the house. And then one day she sat down and wrote a short story about a town where one resident is chosen by lottery each year to be stoned to death. She finished the story in two hours and sent it off to The New Yorker magazine, where it was published as "The Lottery" in 1948. The story generated more reader response than any other story in The New Yorker's history. Hundreds of readers wrote to the magazine, demanding to know what the story meant, or asking to cancel their subscriptions because they were so disturbed.

It was on this day in 1900 that the physicist Max Planck published his theory of quantum mechanics. He was trying describe the behavior of light in his experiments, but found that the only way he could do it was to assume that light travels in little packets, which didn't make sense to him. He called his theory "an act of desperation." He assumed that some future physicist would figure out what he had done wrong. But it turned out that he wasn't doing anything wrong. Physicists have been exploring and describing the strange behavior of light and subatomic particles ever since.

The basic idea behind quantum mechanics is that particles of light, as well as other subatomic particles, are by nature unpredictable. If you shoot them across the room, you can never predict exactly where they will end up. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr once said that a person who was not shocked by quantum theory did not understand it, and the physicist Richard Feynman once said that while only a modest number of people truly understand the theory of relativity, no one understands quantum mechanics. Max Planck himself died in 1947, and he never came to fully accept the theory he discovered on this day in 1900. But his discovery led to the development of modern electronics, including the transistor, the laser, and the computer.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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