The Last Day of Class (Imprecise Words)

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An empty classroom. Coat hooks on the back wall, 3 rows of desks behind a computer console. Two windows, one with an air conditioner, the other partially opened with bare trees in the background. The window shades let in light. Photo by Susan Bernstein December 7, 2023.An empty classroom. Coat hooks on the back wall, 3 rows of desks behind a computer console. Two windows, one with an air conditioner, the other partially opened with bare trees in the background. The window shades let in light. Photo by Susan Bernstein December 7, 2023.

 

Pantoum for Fall Semester 2023

 

A   Dear students of Fall term

B   We gather together to affirm

C  The many languages that create writing

D  That alone is quite exciting

 

B   We gather together to affirm–

E   Written words can make us squirm! 

C  The many languages that create writing

F   Their definitions tumbled and imprecise* 

 

E   Written words can make us squirm

G   How do we know what words can mean

F    Their definitions tumbled and imprecise

H    Still we’re fully human– not a machine

 

G   How do we know what words can mean?

I     All we imagine– worlds yet unseen

H  Still we’re fully human and not a machine

A  Dear students of Fall term

 

*” Imprecise words” from the introduction to James Baldwin’s lecture, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.”

 

Perhaps the greatest take away from James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” this semester was the idea of “imprecise words.” Baldwin explains:

I really don’t like words like “artist” or “integrity” or “courage” or “nobility.” I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don’t really know what they mean, any more than I really know what such words as “democracy” or “peace” or “peace-loving” or “warlike” or “integration” mean. And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words.

 “Something which is real and that lives behind the words”: With this opening line, Baldwin does not offer specific examples of recent events that, for him, render words “imprecise” and that cause him to search for “which is real and which lives behind the words.” He will save those events for the end of the lecture. In this way, he draws the audience into the lecture by allowing us to fill in the blanks. In 1962, when Baldwin spoke in New York, unfortunately the audience had too many catastrophic events to choose from, not unlike our own time. 

The last day of class, we wrote for a while, and then the party began. We had food, music, and even dancing. The words I have to describe this scene are imprecise. I remembered that a year ago, I was on leave and thinking about retiring. I could not have imagined that a year later our class would host a celebration, that there would be anything to celebrate, and that I would want to write poetry about teaching and learning. This fall, I felt my imagination expand. It turns out that the course theme, “Think Outside the Box,” was meant for me as well. 

A few weeks ago, I virtually attended the “God Made My Face” symposium on James Baldwin held at the Brooklyn Museum. In the final panel of the symposium, three visual artists discussed how they included Baldwin’s writing in their own work, from zines to films and paintings. Near the end, moderator Thelma Golden asked the panelists a final question, which, in my notes, reads: “What do you want to know about Baldwin that you don’t know? What path to a future?” One of the artists, Garrett Bradley, wondered about the role of grief in Baldwin, and if art was a salve for grief.

Because in Baldwin, and in life, the audience might find grief as well as joy. Grief is hard work and joy is not an inevitability. In the direst of situations, words remain imprecise. I write poetry, and especially pantoums, when I have much to say, but don’t know how to say it. Pantoums offer precise rhyme schemes and the form provides focus for a starting point.

The classroom is empty now, the semester done. I struggle “to get to something real that lives behind the words.” The goal, always, is to push language much farther than I think it can go. Still, we’re fully human, not a machine. Perhaps that is how Baldwin speaks to me at the end of this semester.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.