The Place

by Paul J. Willis, Professor of English, Westmont

Westmont College

“This is the place,” said Ruth Kerr. “This is the place the Lord has chosen for us.” The year was 1945, and she had just driven through the sandstone entrance gate to the Murphy estate in Montecito. She and a small group of trustees were looking for a postwar home for Westmont College. According to Mrs. Kerr, they had found it.

By the time I got to Westmont some 40 years later as a teacher of English, this story, like many others about Ruth Kerr, had gained the status of legend. You might even call it our creation myth. “‘Let there be light’; and there was light,” says the book of Genesis. “This is the place,” said Mrs Kerr. And this was the place.

Though I am not normally fond of people who get their way by claiming divine inspiration, for Mrs. Kerr I make an exception. This really has been the place. For almost 70 years now, the former Murphy estate, with the addition of the old Deane School on lower campus, has been a gracious and fitting home for generations of our students.

The first time I saw the Westmont campus, however, I wasn’t so sure that this was the place for me. A junior in high school, I had come to visit my older brother on my spring break. I stayed with him a night or two in his Armington dorm room, and during the day I sometimes went to his classes and sometimes wandered about on my own. In one class we sat outside Porter Theatre in a small circle on the lawn with a young professor by the interesting name of Lyle Hillegas. I was surprised by how warmly he greeted me, by how much I felt included, by how intimate that circle felt in the sunshine out on the grass. I didn’t know that education could be this personable. At the same time, I wasn’t sure that something this personable could really count as education. Where were the brick buildings, the quadrangles, the ivy, the snow? These marks of a true education were conspicuously absent.

At the end of a day of wandering about on my own, my brother asked me, “Well, what do you think of the place?” “I think a person could walk around all day, just saying hi to people.” “It’s been done,” my brother said. Years later, reading “As You Like It” for the first time and reveling in what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most delightful setting in all of his plays, I paused over what Celia says when she first enters the Forest of Arden: “I like this place, / And willingly could waste my time in it.” For some reason I thought back to my first impressions of Westmont—to how powerfully drawn I had been to the place and, at the same time, how powerfully afraid I had been that I would waste my time there. As it turned out, I attended a pair of those bricks-and-ivy-and-snow institutions where education had a kind of grim certainty about it. And then I taught at one as well. When the invitation came to apply to Westmont, my feelings had long since started to change about what kind of place makes a good college.

Reynold's Hall, WestmontThese days, I spend most of my time in Reynolds Hall, an historic stucco building on lower campus that used to house the boys who attended the Deane School. There are six offices upstairs, mostly for the modern languages faculty, and six offices downstairs, for the English types. Each suite of offices surrounds its own sitting room with a fireplace. It doesn’t rain all that often, but when it does, the students arrive dripping wet, and we have a fire of live oak going for them. I like to watch them crowding around the fireplace in their steaming clothes, laughing hard at nothing in particular, ready for class. On Friday afternoons now our secretary serves tea for the English majors, and if it happens to be raining then, with a good fire in the fireplace, you might as well invite Lucy and Mr. Tumnus the faun to step out of the C. S. Lewis wardrobe at the side of the room. It is that cozy. In March the wisteria clothe the veranda in purpling vines. The windows and doors to the sitting rooms are flung wide, and the sun and the fragrance drift among us. As John Muir says, “One’s body is all one tingling palate.” We dart like swallows. We are that alive.

The sleeping porches for the boys of the old Deane School have long since been converted into the Reynolds classrooms. Each one has two full walls of windows that look out on a graceful lawn and the chaparral slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains. This is handy for illustrating the Art-versus-Nature debate of the Renaissance. “Which do you prefer?” I ask. “Which is more beautiful? This open lawn with its curving path of cut stone, the product of human art and skill? Or that wilderness mountainside in the distance, the ceanothus in winter bloom and the ragged reach of sandstone cliffs—the natural landscape, unaltered by human hand?” The answer, of course, is both, and neither. The relatively ordered beauty of the campus would be claustrophobic indeed without the mountains rising behind it. After my first year of teaching here I lit off into the hills on a pack trip and crossed paths with just eight people in eight days. I liked that. Last summer a mountain lion and her cub walked quietly down to Reynolds Hall, then just as quietly left. I liked that too. Recently, a woman in a garden hat also walked serenely past while pushing an elderly pug dog in a baby stroller. The dog was sitting nobly erect, nose in the air. In Montecito, art and nature still debate.

But I think it is the wild beauty of each new gathering of students on this side of all those windows that make these classrooms what they are (though for some, of course—especially at 8 a.m.—the rooms fulfill their original function as places to sleep). Some professors much prefer to teach the specialized upper-division courses for majors. These courses have their obvious pleasures, but I also find satisfaction in teaching the introductory classes. Perhaps it is the evangelist inside of me that likes this challenge. To join a small roomful of freshmen and sophomores who are not at all sure that they like literature, or (more important) that literature likes them—what better place to start?

Fortunately, I can still remember what it was like to take my own first literature courses. How beautiful and confusing were the books we read! How inadequate I felt to comment upon them! How intimidating the English majors who seemed to know just what to say! When I first came to college, my idea of a good poet was Robert Service, and of a good poem “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill.” Why no one else shared this enthusiasm, I could not say. When asked to state the meaning of “The Waste Land,” by T. S. Eliot, I read back to the elderly teacher the only line I understood: “In the mountains, there you feel free.”

This same professor had a little habit that I noticed and I puzzled over. At the beginning of each class, he would open the text for the day with loving reverence, dividing the book like a loaf of bread and lowering the two halves with slow care. Hemingway, Faulkner, Pound, or Eliot—it didn’t matter—they all received the same treatment. After a few weeks, I realized I had seen only one other book treated with such dignity: the Holy Bible. And a few weeks after that, I realized that what I was witnessing every day was a sacramental gesture, an integration of faith with learning, an acknowledgment that all truth is God’s truth, wherever and in whatsoever form it is found.

Formal Gardens, Westmont

I wish I could say I have carried out this gesture in my own classes with similar care and effect. But, alas, we now live in the age of throwaway paperbacks, which I toss about at the lectern with unceremonious abandon. In any case I seem to lack the physical patience and coordination to exactly imitate my professor. One thing that I seem able to do with some rightness, however, is to read a poem aloud. It is not a great gift, and it may not compensate for my many deficiencies as a teacher. (Quote from a student evaluation: “As it is, he putters around, often appears to lose track.”) But I think that in reading a poem aloud, something close to the sacramental occasionally takes place. Grace can occur. Understanding. Those freshmen and sophomores sometimes get a wakeful look upon their faces. They lean in. They want more. They don’t know what it is they want, but they want more.

Though I might choose any number of works to read with an introductory class, the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert, those 17th-century Anglican divines, always seems to find a place on my syllabus. Roughening up my voice a bit, I launch into Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14”:

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 

I might pause here. I might ask why it is that the speaker calls on all three persons of God.

“The better to batter,” says one.

“If it is, like a battering ram, he needs a whole army,” says another. “An army of three.”

They are a little surprised at themselves. They are getting this. The poem is not an impossible Rubik’s cube after all.

“What are the three persons doing in the second line?” I ask them next. “Do you see three verbs in a row?”

They all nod. “Knock, breathe, shine,” someone says.

“Might each verb describe the action of a different member of the Trinity? If so, which action for which member?”

“Knock,” says a back-row dweller. “That’s Jesus.”

“Why?” I ask.

“‘Knock, and the door will be opened unto you’?”

“Who’s doing the knocking there?”

“Hmm,” he says. “I guess we are.”

“I know,” says another. “‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’”

“Who says that?”

“Jesus?”

“Where?”

“Revelations, maybe?”

“Revelation,” I correct her. “But that’s right. The risen Christ.”

“Unlike a battering ram,” says the boy who first brought it up. “Just knocking.”

I am so delighted by this that I jump ahead to another question. “Do you see three more verbs in the fourth line?”

“Break, blow, burn,” someone says.

“What’s their relationship to ‘knock, breathe, shine’?”

“Intense,” says the surfer stretched out by the door. “Everything gets more intense.”

“In what way?” I ask.

“He’s not just knocking, he’s totally breaking the whole door down.”

“Like a battering ram,” says the battering boy.

After a bit we get on to the next two lines of the poem: “I, like an usurped town, to another due, / Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end. . . .” I throw my weight into the word usurped, then ask if anyone knows what it means.

“Like, to take over?”

“To take over wrongfully,” I say.

“As in, ‘Hey, usurped my Blenders,’” says a baseball player in the corner.

General laughter. He takes a bow, then retreats beneath his cap.

“Whatever it means,” says a young woman in the front, “I just like the sound of it. It’s fun to say. Usurped.”

“Yes,” I say. “Any other words that are fun to say in this poem?”

“Batter,” says battering boy. I can get my teeth into that.”

“Ravish,” says another. “It’s the last word in the poem, and I like it. But I’m not really sure what it means.”

“Anybody know?” I ask.

Silence. Hesitation. “Rape?” says someone in a whisper.

“That’s right,” I say. “Who wants to be raped in the poem, and by whom?”

“Donne,” says the person. “By God.”

“This is way too intense,” says the surfer.

“Like a battering ram,” says you-know-who—although this time he doesn’t like the sound of it.

Next we go to a poem called “Love (III),” by George Herbert. I soften my voice considerably for the opening lines:

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, 

Guilty of dust and sin. 

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 

From my first entrance in, 

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning 

If I lacked anything. 

“This is not John Donne,” says one.

“What do you mean?”

“No one is getting battered and raped. That’s what I mean. We’re talking love here, with a capital ‘L.’”

“But Herbert feels just as guilty as Donne,” says another. “It says right there, ‘Guilty of dust and sin.’”

“How can we be guilty of dust?” says someone else. “I don’t get that.”

“Mortality,” her usually quiet seatmate says. “Dust to dust. Our reward for sin, maybe.”

“Still,” says the first speaker, “this is way different from Donne. A lot gentler.”

“Keep going,” I say.

“Sorry, that’s it.”

“Someone else?”

“Well, in Donne, he demands that God, like, totally attack him.”

“And in Herbert?”

“In Herbert, God is like this wonderful host, or hostess—this really welcoming lady, maybe, who has you over to her house— who demands—no, just invites—invites you to sit down to a meal.”

“Who’s right?” I ask.

“About what?”

“About God,” I say. “About what God does.”

“They’re both right,” says the quiet young woman. “But I think Herbert is more right.”

“For you, maybe,” says the baseball player forcefully. “So maybe different ones of us experience God in different ways?

Maybe we need both poets?” “In the green,” says the surfer. “In the green?” I say. “Right inside the tube,” he says. “The very best part of the wave.” I have had some version of this discussion more than a time or two. Perhaps I have idealized it a little bit, combining some of the better moments from different classes. But the spirit of such conversation, the potential of it, is always there—in the sacrament of the spoken poem, in the way that Love bids us gently or batters us with sudden force. As a teacher I am the handheld dummy for ventriloquist poets who projected their voices long ago. I have only to say the words, and I am not the one who says them. I am merely a medium, and beyond that, merely a witness to what happens in the magic circle of a many-windowed classroom.

And so much happens among my students that I never get to witness. In a Renaissance literature course some years ago, we read all thousand pages of “The Fairie Queene,” the longest poem in the English language. One pair of roommates in the class read the entire work aloud to each other, week by week, canto by canto, in the privacy of their room. Another pair of students drive to the same funky coffee shop each Thursday night and compose poems, side by side. Yet another has started a club which writes by flashlight on the beach. And this is not to mention the unfathomable mystery of solitary reading and writing. Who can calculate what happens when a student is fully and completely absorbed in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and discovers at the very end that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Or think of the same student hard at work on a paper at midnight, discovering the metaphor that makes her next sentence sing. There is a hidden life of literature. “Sing, Heav’nly Muse,” says John Milton. But the muse is not a heavenly host, it is not a choir. It is more like the wind of the Spirit, faithfully heard by one ear at a time.

One spring I took a carload of students to the university across town to hear the Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. She was sparkling and gracious in her reading, and as we drove back to Westmont, expressing our enthusiasm to each other for Nye’s work, one student, who was due to graduate in a few weeks, quietly said, “That was the best experience of my whole time in college.” Who can say what had transpired within her? What miracles of reception take place every day that no one ever shares or speaks of?

Of course, we invite a good number of scholars and writers and artists to our own campus to present their work to our students. (Naomi Shihab Nye has even come of late.) The most distinguished venue for our guest presenters is Hieronymus Lounge in Kerrwood Hall, the dark-panelled parlor of the great house that once belonged to the Murphy family but was purchased for us by Ruth Kerr. Her portrait hangs just over the fireplace, behind the lectern. She wears a farsighted, mysterious expression, lips pursed, as if reserving judgment on what is happening here these days. I joke sometimes when introducing a visiting poet that if Ruth Kerr really and truly likes a poem, her face will blossom into approval. In his poem “The Tyger,” William Blake asks of the Creator, “Did he smile his work to see?” I sometimes wonder the same thing about Mrs. Kerr. Does she smile her work to see? Or our work, rather? The eyes of her portrait gaze across the carpet and couches of the lounge to the windowed doors, slightly ajar, that open onto a giant redwood planted in the circled lawn. There is a faint, clean smell of eucalyptus in the air, and, beyond the reach of the redwood tree, chaparral shines far and far to sandstone summits.

This is the place, Ruth Kerr.

This is still the place that the Lord has chosen.

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