Framingham


Gray day

When you live in New England, you become a connoisseur of light. Yesterday the light was gray, like pewter, the world cast in monochrome with scant shadows and slivers of trees snaking across the sky like veins.

Mixed precipitation

When I was a child in Ohio, winters were long, but so were the days. I’ve lived in New England for more than two decades, and I’m still surprised when the sun starts setting in the afternoon, long before dinner. In January, daylight is scarce and precious, so you make every attempt to save and savor it.

Yesterday was a gray-sleeting day, the ground carpeted in dense, sludgy snow: yesterday, I never saw the sun. Instead, daylight diffused through clouds and wind, the mist falling sideways beneath umbrellas, the damp seeping into pores and corners, and the light landing on shallow surfaces like silver.

Adirondack chairs

August is the beginning of the end of summer, with back-to-school commercials playing on TV and Halloween candy on display at the grocery store. On Monday, I drove to Framingham State to help plan our annual retreat for first-year writing instructors: a time to come together and share teaching ideas before we put the finishing touches on our Fall semester syllabi.

Live to the truth.

I sometimes joke that my favorite time of year is August, when I’m planning my syllabi without any actual students around. When you’re ramping up for a new school year, absolutely anything is possible. All the practical problems you faced last semester are long forgotten, and a new school year offers the promise of a new beginning. This year, you tell yourself, you’ll engage your students with well-designed assignments; this year, you tell yourself, you’ll keep up with your grading and avoid the dreaded Dark Night of the Semester when both you and your students are tired and unmotivated.

Two chairs, no waiting

As soon as the school year starts, even a perfectly designed syllabus will be tested by practical realities: there’s never enough time, after all, to instill all the lessons you want your students to learn. As the late Mario Cuomo famously said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Just as political candidates promise the moon and stars, a teacher who is planning a syllabus sees the sky as being her students’ ceiling. There will be plenty of time later to revisit and adjust your actual expectations.

Fallen

The fall foliage in the Boston suburbs is now past peak, which means it’s my favorite time of year, when the ground is just as colorful as the trees. I like the crunch of leaves underfoot, and I like the burnt and burnished tone of the late-changers, who lean toward brown and bronze. October is ethereal, with bright colors overhead, and November is grounded, with earth tones underfoot.

Please don't erase

Several of the lounges in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs, have whiteboard walls, giving students plenty of space to scribble graphs and equations while they work. Although I’m not a scientist and don’t understand most of what these figures mean, I enjoy seeing them. As a writer, I deeply respect the blank page, and that’s basically what a whiteboard wall is. Whether you’re scribbling the draft of an essay or a graphic equation, you’re translating an imaginary idea into a visual figure that others can see and comment on. Where once there was nothing, now there is a visual expression of deep ideas.

Whiteboard dragon

This morning in my first-year writing class, I asked students to take a learning style assessment. Some of my students already know whether they are auditory, visual, or tactile learners, but others don’t, and I think it’s helpful for students to understand how they learn. Since I myself am a visual learner–someone, that is, who likes to see the shape of an idea and who remembers concepts according to where I saw them on the page–it makes sense that I love the whiteboard walls in Hemenway Labs. I’ve always struggled to do math in my head, so even the most complicated figure makes more sense to me than a verbal explanation of that same concept.

Fun with whiteboard walls

Whether or not they are visual learners, college students are perpetually stressed, so it should come as no surprise that some of the whiteboards in Hemenway Labs are covered with cartoon doodles that have very little to do with science. One thoughtful soul even went so far as to leave a mandala coloring book and shared stash of markers for anyone who wants to color their way to calm: visual learning at its best.

Communal art supplies

Empty classroom with mannequins

It’s Halloween night, and as usual our quiet suburban neighborhood has transformed itself into an eerie landscape adorned with fake tombstones, plastic skeletons, and all sorts of dangling ghosts, witches, and ghouls. But sometimes the simplest things can be the creepiest, like this quiet coven of dress forms clustered in an empty classroom at Framingham State. What do naked dummies do after their fashion design students have gone home for the night?

Atrium

I’ve been spending lots of between-class time this semester in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs. Although I’m not a member of the science department, two of my first-year writing classes meet in the classroom building that is connected to Hemenway Labs, and during last month’s heat wave, it was more comfortably air-conditioned there than in my office in the much-older May Hall.

Tete a tete

The new science center’s classrooms and laboratories surround an airy atrium that is lit from floor-to-ceiling windows on both ends and narrow skylights overhead. On every level, there are lounge chairs and tables overlooking either the interior atrium or the campus outside. Depending on where you choose to sit, you are afforded excellent views of students studying several floors below, passersby strolling on bricked pathways outside, or the branching boughs of mature oak trees in the quad.

My office in the English Department is perfectly functional: May Hall is centrally located, so it’s easy for students to find me during my office hours. But the desk in my office faces a wall, giving me a view of the hallway rather than the world outside, and the windows in my office let in light but don’t offer much in the way of a view. Facing a wall is fine and good when you’re prepping classes, meeting with students, or grading papers, but when I write, I appreciate a more expansive view.

Lounge with a view

In Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” one waiter tries to convince another that lone souls both crave and deserve bright, open, and public places where they can congregate and converse: places to enjoy alone, together. The architects who designed Hemenway Labs clearly understood that. When I’m holed away in my office, my students have to seek me out, but when I sit in one of the science center lounges, quietly working on my laptop, I exist in one of the places they frequent, surrounded by the conversations that happen outside of any class.

Street lamp with foliage

Fall is my favorite season because it is fleeting. Last week was brutally hot–one of summer’s last fevered gasps–and this week is much cooler: brisk in the mornings and downright chilly at night. These in-between days when you can still wear shorts and sandals but appreciate the extra layer of a sweatshirt are my favorite days, a bittersweet time when summer leisure is fading away with a fanfare of gold and orange.

These days are precious because they are fading: the light is waning and the days shrinking. I often say I’d be happy if every day could be fall, but this is impossible, a wish that defies the laws of physics. Fall by its very nature is a season in motion–a time of decay and decline–and every year I find myself wanting to slow down that progression, as if time could be moved.

Unmowed

Fall is my favorite season because I love the things associated with it: pumpkins and cider and a new crop of fresh-eyed freshmen. But fall is my favorite season, too, because it’s a tender and tenuous time. Fall isn’t a season in its youth or prime but a season slouching toward old age. Fall is my favorite season because I know what comes next. In the summer, we live for the moment, languidly wasting our days because it seems they will never end. In fall, we come to our senses, saving up sensations and basking in beauty like a squirrel hoarding acorns against lean times.

Robert Frost was no stranger to New England autumns, so I believe him when he insists that nothing gold can stay. In late September, I want to bottle the long-angling light like a jar full of lightning bugs, but I know there is no catching nor containing it.

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