Coming up for air

It’s nearly the end of Fourth Week, halfway through Michaelmas term.  I have two full-length essays due next week, an essay proposal to draft by Sunday, several books to finish in the next few days, and I’m tired.  The exhaustion is catching in my muscles, stiff, clumsy, cumbersome.  It’s easy to wake up, but hard to get out of bed.

‘Look out for the Fifth Week Blues,’ my primary tutor warned, smiling slightly.  ‘It’s kind of an Oxford thing, all the students get a bit depressed.’  He’s trying to cheer us up, and it works; it’s comforting to know that the lethargy is not unusual.  Enough encouragement to dive into the next essay.

My primary tutor is Dr. Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, who has been described (repeatedly) as ‘THE foremost C. S. Lewis scholar of the world today.’  I didn’t know how famous he was until I arrived.  I spend every week frantically reading texts, compiling notes, outlining and then writing an essay, and then I meet Dr. Ward for an hour in a conference room inside Blackfriars Hall.

Then I read my essay aloud.  The first week he let me read my essay in its entirety while he stood at the far end of the room, looking out the window, not moving.  When I finished, my voice quavering out the last sentence into empty space, he walked back across the room, sat in the chair across from me, and said, ‘Very good.  Any questions?’

If my argument doesn’t follow, or if I mispronounce something, he stops me.  (I’m still trying to forget the week I pronounced Eurydice phonetically.)  He asks me if I have questions, responds to my essay, brings up questions he’s thought of, points out topics I’ve missed in my essay.  He can recite whole pages of Lewis—theology, literary criticism, autobiography—at a time, can place any quote I read in context.  He can make the phrase ‘the whole bang-shoot’ sound dignified.  His Planet Narnia is probably the most widely discussed Lewis scholarship in the world today.

‘Tutorials are great because you can’t hide,’ one of my Bethel professors told me before I left, and it sounds contradictory, but it’s true.  There’s fun to be had in showing up to tutorials and watching Dr. Michael Ward shred your argument.  You put everything you have onto the page—articulated logic, academic background, several hours mentally circling the topic, and one night sans sleep—and even then you know it won’t be shiny.  There will be an overstatement in the middle of the third page, a generalized paragraph, a misreading of one of the texts.  But there’s something immensely satisfying about it, even when Dr. Ward proves me wrong, raises his eyebrows, smiles patiently as I try to hedge an answer to his question.  We’re talking about something that can be known, even if I don’t know it yet.  And when I manage, almost in spite of myself, to make a solid, well-supported point, I get a ‘well done’, and sometimes that ‘well done’ carries me on a happy little cloud (à la Bob Ross) all the way home.

There are other bright spots, too, quite outside the academics.  Last week my food group consented to read one of my favorite fairy tales, ‘The Princess and the Hedge-Pig’ by E. Nesbit, aloud after dinner.  You can’t say ‘hedge-pig’ and be sad, even if you wanted to.  They laugh because it makes me so happy.  Yesterday I made chocolate chip scones in the kitchen, and three of us made short work of them before dinner.  Getting to know people here is difficult because we know we’ll be splitting apart after a few intense months, but it’s worthwhile.  I value the people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve begun.  And there is always tea, whenever you want it.  No one ever needs to go without tea.

As I write this, I am sitting in the Bodleian library’s Upper Reading Room, and I know I have to finish writing before I leave or it will disappear into my computer, never to surface again.  The sky was white today, but it is black now, and now all I can see of the Radcliffe Camera just outside are the lit windows.  I live here, I think.  I can picture the streetlights that line the sidewalk, dimmer and yellower than American ones.  In a few moments I will walk home in the cold.


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