I would not be here if I had not been there on the 16th of October, a cold rainy Monday, 1967. Here, being in the midst of a rewarding career as a high school English teacher; there, being the third floor of the University of Oklahoma library. I should have been at the afternoon sessions of a yearbook workshop that was the purpose of the field trip that brought me from my small Oklahoma home town to the largest university in my state, but I had loved books all 17 of my years and how could I not go see them when they had such a huge building all to themselves?
Altus High School had limited resources, the books kept behind chest-high counters, ransomed by individual call number, and released one at a time in exchange for each returned book. The Bizzell Memorial Library had five floors with nothing between the books and me. And I was on a mission.
My high school literature textbook - from a time when textbooks did not come with color pictures on every page - had six color plates, one of which was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix, a painting that I am sure you know well, but that opened a whole new world for me. I still remember how confused, yet intrigued, I was by that painting. Everything in the picture draws attention to Beatrice's yearning, from the way her body leans forward to the tranquility of her still hands, from her closed eyes and upturned face to the symmetrically placed images in the background, both looking toward her. The caption revealed that Rossetti had painted it a year after his wife died and made some reference to the background figures - one of whom was supposed to be Love, personified, bearing in his hand a heart in flames; the other, Dante himself.
The Rossetti poems in the textbook included the sonnet "On the 'Vita Nuova' of Dante" and several sonnets for pictures - without the pictures, pictures that could not be found in my little Oklahoma town. I wanted to know more about the Dante.
On the third floor of that library I found out that the Dante was not a he but a they.
I was embarrassed by my ignorance and excited that there was so much more to learn and I even found out that they had a whole other library in the art building and what else was I missing and what else was everyone else missing and what could I do to fix this? How could I have lived 17 years and remained so ignorant?
Years later when I first read Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," I knew exactly how the cave dweller felt when he stepped outside into the sunshine for the first time. Exactly.
I was compelled to become a teacher. I always hang a poster of Rossetti's Beata Beatrix in my classroom, so that I am always aware of the presence of ignorance and the potentiality of knowledge in each of us at any time. Epiphany.
I have never before admitted that I did not know that these were two distinctly different people. My Dante wrote short poems, brimful of sensory detail, deliciously synaesthetic, and often included his own illustrations that further enriched my reading; your Dante wrote long, difficult books, full of allusions to a culture alien to me. Your Dante intimidated me.
But my Dante loved your Dante. I could not really appreciate mine unless I learned more about yours. My reading of Dante Alighieri is disorganized and incomplete. I've read the Vita Nuova and parts of The Inferno, but not all. Nor am I a Rossetti scholar, though I did write a really good paper on him in graduate school. Rossetti is certainly not as "important" as Dante Alighieri, in any sense. I would not even go so far as to say that Rossetti is my favorite poet. He's just someone who showed me that ignorance need not be a permanent condition and introduced me to his favorite poet who is probably your favorite poet, as well.
Our Dantes were once oddly entwined in my poorly-educated teenage mind in a serendipitous way which indirectly shaped me into the learner I am today and led me to where I want to be this summer - immersed, perhaps a bit overwhelmed, in the experience, "text-crawling through Dante."
As I read over the descriptions of all the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes, my breath caught in my throat when I read about your summer in Siena. Your enthusiasm came through in every line. Both of you have been teaching Dante for as long as I've been teaching teenagers. Those who are not lifelong teachers do not understand how those who are can teach the same literature year after year, but we know that when you love something, it gets better not boring.
If wishing could make it happen, you would already have picked me because I want this seminar so passionately. Italy has called to you before and who would not want to follow your lead? I am particularly intrigued by the way you plan to incorporate art and the physical context of Siena in our study. Your qualifications to teach me are evident, and I hope I can convince you that I am worthy of instruction.
I am a good teacher because I've been fortunate to work with colleagues who are better, who inspire me to be better, who stimulate each other, who share, and who have helped me enjoy teaching for almost every one of the 28 years I've been doing this. Teaching renews me only as long as I keep learning.
Traveling is a vital part of this opportunity. We could read Dante anywhere, but I want the chance to read him in Siena. Even if my luggage gets lost and it's hot and my feet hurt, my worst travel experiences have given me moments that made the journey itself as valuable as the destination. Although I grew up in Oklahoma, my stepfather was in the Air Force and my family was stationed in England immediately after my high school graduation. The odd transportation policies of the Department of Defense blessed my college summers. I could fly standby on any military flight going anywhere until one of those airplanes landed at my family's home base in Lakenheath, England. I knew where I was going, just not exactly how or when I would arrive. Every summer I followed a general itinerary - towards England - with stops in the Azores, Greece, Iceland, Scotland and one life-altering day in Italy more than 30 years ago.
When I graduated from high school, Twiggy was the model of the year, her curveless body an ideal my thinnest friends could not approach. I had always described myself as "chubby" or "pleasingly plump." I arrived in Italy in the company of skinny boys and slender girls. I ignored the whistles, knowing full well they could never be meant for me, nor need I fear the infamous Italian pinchers. My thin friends had little luck hailing a cab, until suddenly one cut across four lanes of traffic and screeched to a halt in front of us. The driver jumped out, took off his hat, and bowed chivalrously to me. Though I knew no Italian, I understood what his "elegante" meant and that it was meant for me. In Italy, for the first time in my life, I was beautiful.
Even today, I am surprised at the impact of that one moment. I could never have been beautiful, not even to myself, without Italy. For me, travel to another country, where beauty was defined differently than it was in America, was an enduring Valentine. That sincere, gracious gesture changed my perspective. I carry that memory of a 30-year-old compliment and I move through life changed by a moment of traffic-stopping Beauty. Epiphany.
I have remained sensitive to how path leads on to path and if you don't know where you're going, you may end up someplace else. How might my next 30 years be transformed if I am there, with you and Dante, in Siena, this summer?