For the Teacher Who Expanded My Universe

This is a guest post from Hannah Engler. Hannah is currently an English major at the University of Michigan. She is the Editor-in-Chief of UMich’s first and only feminist magazine, What the F, as well as a contributor to sites like Slant News and The Odyssey Online. When not writing or reading (which is hardly ever), she makes Indian food in her slow cooker and watches Nora Ephron movies. Her heart (as well as her family) resides in Washington, D.C.


Recently, a beloved high school teacher of mine lost a long battle to cancer. Though I had not seen him in years, it came as a massive blow. I went to a small, all-girls Catholic school with an extremely tight alumnae network, so the day this teacher passed, my Facebook feed was saturated with literary obituaries, nearly all from our assigned readings for his class. Many of his students or former students chose a quote from Crime and Punishment (“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart”) or The Stranger (“In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer”). One woman posted the Cesar Vallejo poem “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone,” which made me cry. My sister, though, plucked her eulogy from Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia:

We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it.”

Below this, she wrote:

“If the world really is one enormous recycling bin, I sincerely hope some of Mr. Duffy’s spirit lands on English teachers everywhere.”

There was something really gorgeous about the way these books were being reappropriated; these books we had been “forced” to read, but not forced to remember, and only persuaded to care about in the gentlest of ways. But it was my sister’s reference to Arcadia in particular that seemed to make the most sense to me. It was a play that had deeply affected us both. Only a few weeks before, when I learned that Mr. Duffy had ended his treatment and was spending his remaining time with his family, my first instinct had been to go to my local bookstore and pick up a copy of the play. That day, I reread it in one sitting.

I am not so much a book lover as a book eater. They’re my key source of nutrients and I am never full. When I was a high school senior, Arcadia was a feast. The play tells two stories that, despite being set hundreds of years apart, continuously circle around each other like couples on a dance floor. Occupying the stage in 1809 are Thomasina Coverly, a thirteen year old mathematical genius, and her tutor, the clever and cavalier Septimus Hodge; in the present day, the protagonists are the “pop historian” Hannah Jarvis, who is studying Thomasina’s family, and a small cohort of bickering academics. The two stories are anchored in one static room, as if the people in the two plotlines are haunting each other.

In my favorite scene, one character angrily asserts the resonance of the humanities over the sciences by saying: “If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much, mate. Is the universe contracting? Is it expanding?…Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you. ‘She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.’” It is an argument that Stoppard makes beautifully, and then refutes with equal vigor. Of course, one field of study is no more important than another. The conclusion of the play, is the simple answer that all knowledge is self-knowledge. Poets and physicists play a kind of cosmic ping-pong, in defining our existence. What is lost on one will be found by the other.  

This compromise, this filling in of the blanks, is crucial to the play. Time is not linear. The past and the future happen together. Thomasina misplaces her notebook, only for it to be picked up two centuries later, in the very room where she left it. I first read Arcadia at a time in my life when I was terrified of what I would lose to time: my high school friends, the house where I grew up, in some ways my innocence. But when I reopened the book again this winter, I was back in my plaid uniform, in the pink-walled classroom with the Flaubert quote on the wall. It was all still there. I could walk right in.

The day my teacher passed away, I reflected on the word “loss,” and how accurate it seemed: I felt lost. But in the world of Arcadia – which is actually, impossibly, our world – there’s no such thing. In the wake of his death, hundreds of people found pieces of his teaching within themselves. Maybe his spirit would, as my sister said, land on other English teachers. But more importantly, it latched onto all of us. Through books, he had helped us all to expand our universes. So I keep reading, and rereading. And it’s how I march on.

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