My semester as Werther

In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

1967 was a year for learning perseverance. I had understood that financial aid would be coming like clockwork in the first weeks of the year. Eager to show my ability to be responsible, I paid for three or four months’ rent all at once. I also paid tuition and bought my books. I reasoned that the rent was going to come due anyway, my aid would pay for other expenses, and by March my bi-weekly checks from a part-time job would be coming in regularly to pay for rent in the following months. I savored the thought that my housing, tuition, and course materials were all in place; I had nothing to worry about.

My error in the end hinged on my understanding that anything to do with financial aid would be timely. As I recall it nearly 50 years later, the file that contained the affidavit that I was an emancipated adult failed to hold another form with a checked box stating that my file was complete. No check meant no check. Moreover the part-time job that I had started in December at 25 hours per week had panned out to be closer to eight hours per week in mid-January.

By early February, I was out of food and money for public transportation. This would not be the only time I would be in dire straits financially, but I think I was less prepared for its immediate and threatening impact. I lacked resource in just about every aspect of my life. I told a family member that I was really struggling. Their response was cold and humiliating. I didn’t know anyone else sufficiently well to ask for a hand.

At the time I was taking a course in comparative literature from a brilliant young professor. I was the only freshman in the class that was comprised mostly of juniors and seniors. We met in a lecture hall in one of the newer buildings on campus with theater-style seating that had hinged writing surfaces that you could swing up and rotate once you sat down. By the third or fourth week of class, I had not said anything, feeling intimidated by my older, smarter classmates. I slipped into class each Tuesday and Thursday just before the clock clicked to 11:00, selecting a row perhaps two-thirds of the distance from the front stage and as close to the center of the row as possible. I always read everything carefully for that class, sometimes twice, taking profuse notes.

During the first lecture on Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the professor asked me a general question about what struck me about the pre-Romantic Period novel overall. In the response I gave to his question I wanted to conceal my sense of surprise at being asked a question at all and to deliver enough detail to show I had indeed done my homework, maybe even say something about Sturm und Drang Period literature. I cleared my throat and with a tremulous voice said something about Goethe’s main character, Werther. The laughter started almost immediately. Instead of the accurate pronunciation of the author’s name (gur-tuh), I had delivered this: Goath. I similarly butchered Werther’s name.

Scan_20150221 (7)The professor’s gaze became steely and his face inscrutable. He calmly listened to the rest of my response, asked a follow-up question or two, and gently added the correct pronunciations. Sometime later, when students piled out of class for a break, I stayed behind, not wanting to witness their jeers over this pretender who was so obviously like Werther himself, too passionate and too out of his depth. The woman next to me also stayed; she was easily twice my age. I recall her turning to me to say she enjoyed my answer, tell me that anyone could have made the errors in pronunciation, and offer my half of her corned beef sandwich.

Over the course of the semester, I ate well twice a week as the sandwich deliveries continued, sometimes eaten together, but never again shared. She brought me my own. She brushed aside my thanks and I never told her about my financial woes. I do not recall that she ever said anything about my enthusiasm for learning. I don’t know if I ever commented on hers. But we talked about the corned beef, the garlic dill pickles from the barrel at Plotkin’s Deli, and our readings.

In May we both had our A’s in class. I don’t recall our farewells. I don’t believe I ever saw her again; she was raising her family and only taking a class here and there. She had stayed at my side for three months as I continued that transition from being raised poor to being part of an educated middle class. Her very practical attention to my hunger – probably signaled by a growling stomach or by my wolfing that first shared sandwich – provided me with sufficient support to persevere following my early humiliation and ongoing financial worries.

Upon reflection, I also see another influence in the room. The professor remained kind and thoughtful about me. He seemed to telegraph an interest in my intelligence, in my incredibly awkward attempts to have a life of the mind. It was as if both of these more experienced people conspired to foster my freedom, possibly a freedom that they did not have themselves. This young, sensitive, raised-poor gay man was made whole in part by their interest in him. It is unlikely that they saw themselves as brave in any way. Still, because they bucked the prevailing ethos of academic disinterest, they remain my heroes.

There is a certain enthusiasm in liberty that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.
— Alexander Hamilton

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