Letters From Readers
William Stafford in the Classroom
I was a junior at Lewis & Clark in 1969 and had managed to put off taking my English requirements. I had experienced my fill of Shakespeare and all those fellows back in high school, and I was dreading a follow-up course in college.
So I asked one of my friends the all-important question about this prof named Stafford, “Is he easy?” He replied, “Well, I didn’t read more than 20 pages in that class and he passed me!” I’m thinking, “Just what the doctor ordered for springtime on Palatine Hill: ‘English Lit for Dummies.’ I had just completed “Rocks for Jocks” (geology) the previous term, which ended up being difficult and one of the best classes I had ever taken in college. I was determined that wouldn’t happen again.
After all my hard work in “Rocks” and football and wrestling, I was due for a break with this Stafford guy, whom I had never even heard of before. On the first day of class, I walked into the basement of one of the Forest dorms (yeah, I was late). Perhaps 12 students and a teacher were sitting in desks arranged in a circle. “Oh, oh, this doesn’t look good,” I thought as I surveyed the small group. “I’m going to have to say something in this class … maybe even say what I think and why. And what’s with that prof sitting there, like he actually cares? Plus he’s looking like he is expecting to learn something from us as well?” This could be trouble. Oh well, at least he’s easy.”
William Stafford’s soft-spoken words, thoughtful statements, unassuming attitude, and easy-going ways swallowed me up from the first moment that class started. I had always read everything I could lay my hands on, but not like this.I thought, “Hey, this guy’s not too bad. He might make something of himself yet.”
I went on to teach high school at Newport for nearly 30 years. Many of my methods were borrowed from William Stafford. One year, I recall seeing a poster of him in the library. It was about his being named the national poet laureate or something. I told everyone who would listen, “That was my professor! Can you believe it?” They didn’t understand.
Every year when fall rolls around again, I invariably think of his poem, “That Autumn Instant,” the finest thing ever written about a season of a year, a season in life. And my last thought after rereading it is, “What if I hadn’t taken the ‘easy’ professor and I had taken a ‘hard’ professor instead?”
I learned that sometimes in life, the “easy” way out is the best as well as the hardest.
Barry Clock B.S. ‘70
More on Stafford
In 1954, I was a sophomore pre-med student. I took William Stafford’s course Introduction to English Literature because I was required to have some English. Little did I know how lucky I was! That course has stayed with me over the past 55 years. When Dr. Stafford read a poem, one was transported into another world. I’ve never heard anyone read a poem the way he could. (At the time, I didn’t know he was a famous poet himself.) Anyway, one day, after reading a sonnet of Shakespeare’s, he sighed and said, “After Shakespeare everything else seems a bit shabby.”
William “Bill” Sack B.S. ‘56