Simon Doubleday December 19, 2015

Story of the semester

The narrative arc of the semester has ended. The great dramatic climax–the final exam, in a lecture hall packed with great anxieties (and little victories)–has unfolded. The characters have disappeared, by bus, car, and train, some of them never to return for the sequel. We watched them from the stage, like medieval inquisitors: the ones who arrived early, the ones who arrived late, the ones in Hawaiian shirts and sandals, the ones with a hijab, those dressed to kill, and those whose alarm clocks had fatally betrayed them.

If every semester is new, it is also a novel. Extraordinary storylines converge in office hours: a Jewish family who–two generations ago–had traveled from Iran to Kazakhstan, before migrating to Long Island; a Syrian family whose daughter (a newly declared History minor) traveled year after year back to Homs to see her father, deported from the United States. Californian-Koreans, New Jersey Italians, a Bolivian-born football player, a Sicilian-born reader of Dante. We read the Odyssey, we read Ovid, we read Chaucer, and I wonder: what would the great authors have made of this new cast of characters?

By convention, we are supposed to celebrate the end of semester. But I leave the lecture theater knowing I have glimpsed a great–and very complicated–drama unfolding. Now I must assign letter grades to each character (how well have they spoken, and written, and performed?). But these letters do not spell out the true story.