The professor, a bearded man wearing a brown corduroy jacket with olive green patches over the elbows, wore a face of perpetual boredom. He made no introductions, simply telling us that we would begin the semester with an assignment so that he could gauge our understanding of literature. He handed out worn copies of a poem- an untitled poem on paper so well used that the paper was soft and nearly transparent. I remember feeling the freshman excitement of holding a piece of paper that dozens of incoming freshman had held before me.
I do not remember the words of the poem, except that it was short and seemed intentionally cryptic and full of words that you would never use in regular conversation. You could hear the gentle rustle of pages as we each read the poem over and over again. The professor had gone quiet and we were unsure what we were supposed to do, so we continued to read it as he peered at us over horn-rimmed glasses with an expression that told us that he expected us to fail this first lesson.
After a few pensive moments, he cleared his throat while tugging on his salt and pepper beard(a habit he had that would be repeated every few minutes for the entirety of each and every class). He told us that we would go around the room and each of us would tell the class what we thought the poem was about.
So, we did. Each of us nervously chattering about what we perceived the poem was about. One girl was so nervous that she was shaking as she explained that the poem must be about a competitive athlete and her repeated failures, even though she wanted so badly to succeed. I would find out later that she had been a competitive ice skater who had never quite made it to the Olympic try outs, much to her father's dismay.
A skinny boy, who looked far to young to be in college, orated proudly about each line, comparing certain lines to a myriad of different poets. He finished his turn be telling us that he had several of his own poems already published and assured us that his poetry would be held in far more esteem than this drivel we were currently reading. This boy was only 13 years old and was taking college classes "for fun". His life experience was little, but his opinions were vast.
A young man, certainly the most nervous of all of us, prefaced his opinion by telling us all that he knew nothing at all about English and was terribly embarrassed to share after the articulate responses that had come before him. He said that the poem was about a plane crashing and the pilot's realization that he was going to die. I would find out later that this young man's life long dream had been to be an Air Force pilot- a dream that was crushed after his vision was damaged in a motorcycle accident during his training.
My own perception was that the poem was about the descent of a woman into madness after a long battle with depression. So confident was I that this was true, I spoke resolutely and definitively about how each line pointed to this conclusion. The truth, of course, was that I had been battling deep depression for the past few years. In that vague poem I saw the mirror of my own story.
We each took our turn in small classroom, some orating with confidence and some quietly sharing and looking quickly to the next person to take their turn. The professor had now tugged so many times on his coarse grey beard that the center was pulled straight and was now oddly longer and much straighter than the sides. He turned his head and asked us whose interpretation we thought was most likely to be correct.
There was much mumbling, but the conclusion was uncertain and we looked back to him for the answer. He told us that answer that we should have, of course, already known. That poetry, any art really, is seen through the eyes of the reader. What the writer writes will be interpreted differently be each and every person. He concluded by telling us that we were expected to be respectful of the opinions of others as each person would see the work we were reading through a different lens.
In general, that professor was a rather terrible teacher for many different reasons. However, what he taught me that day was the importance of respecting the life journey of those around me, especially when the journey is much different than my own. There is nothing in life that we do not see through the glasses tinted by our own experiences, good or bad as that may be.
Respect the interpretation of life of all around you. You may be surprised to find yourself open and changed in the most beautiful of ways. We have ever so much to learn from each other. No two of us has walked the same journey.
(Oh, and a final note- the poem was, indeed, about a pilot whose plane was descending quickly. The gentleman who seemed least likely to understand, was the only person in the history of the professor's career to have guessed the intent of the author. Indeed, another life lesson. )