Thirty years ago, when I was working at the Quaker school the first time, two or three senior girls approached the chair of the English department with a proposal. They had looked at the course offerings for their final semester at the school, and there was nothing among the myriad of elective offerings that appealed to them. They asked Kristine if she would design a kind of independent study for them, a reading course of some sort. She knew a good idea when she heard one.
It evolved that the chairs of the English, history and theatre departments, along with the school’s librarian would collaborate to present such a course. The class would meet just once a week, and would be heavy on reading and writing coupled with serious discussion. Each faculty member presented a book that must be read and dissected. Each student was required to journal about the readings throughout the course. And a paper would be written.
I no longer remember how many students were in the class, certainly not more than ten, if that. At the time, I was the secretary in the upper (high) school, working on portfolio writing for an undergraduate degree at Thomas Edison State College. What these people were doing was ambitious, college-level work; I joined the class and prepared a portfolio for a course called Sophomore Literature.
The English teacher had us read The Mill on the Floss; this had been her dissertation material. The librarian’s pick was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the theatre man, of course, had us read a play: Mother Courage and her Children. The book that touched me the most was the history teacher’s choice: Beloved.
I remember all those details, and I can still picture the earnest faces of the students in the class thirty years later, some of us moved to tears as we talked about Sethe's hardships.
I journaled faithfully, trusting my coworkers with my thoughts, my reactions to the texts. For my major paper, I wrote on “Quilt Symbolism in the Book, Beloved.” I labored over my project, took seriously the feedback that was offered; I received college credit for the course. It was an intense time for me, this return after twenty years, to the world of academia. I’m not sure, but I suspect that somewhere in the attic are the journal and the paper.
Thirty years ago. This extraordinary academic experiment remains a vivid memory. And apparently not just for me. Yesterday and today, with the news of Toni Morrison’s passing, both the former English chair and former history chair reached out to me. They knew — and remembered — what that course, that book, had meant to me all those years ago.