As the slightly cooler air signaled the close of a hot summer and insinuated, gently, the arrival of fall in Athens, Greece, I climbed the steps to the second floor of the turn-of-the 20th century house that holds the facilities of PORTA – the Albanian culture center. This stately, neo-classical house that once served as the surgery and private residence for the doctor who was the medical attendant to the King of Greece, now is my primary workplace. A tight grip on the circling, wrought-iron banister pulled my aging limbs and body upward to the place where students were already gathering. It was the first night of the Fall Session of the English-as-a-foreign-language classes which we offer through our center for Albanian immigrants.
Despite my weariness, I sensed renewed energy, a fresh wind, a new-found grace and an elevated hope within. Although I wouldn’t dare physically to leap up those stairs, my heart wanted to, because it was time for school to begin again. Breathless, I arrived upstairs with a few moments to reflect on all of those times in the past when I and some students somewhere have, together, faced the first day of class. Since 1968, with precious few exceptions, I have celebrated the autumnal commencement of learning from the professorial side of a university lectern. In such varied settings as a small town in northeast Mississippi, a moderate sized city in Kentucky, the megacity of Houston, Texas and now, in the old, Balkan, metropolis of Athens, Greece, I have welcomed the fall and the first day of class.
I am certain that I favor the first of school because of the new beginnings which it celebrates and affords for all involved. There is something comforting, if also, somewhat artificial, about the academic penchant for beginning and ending seasons of learning. When the course of study begins again, there are fresh opportunities and renewed possibilities. Regardless of what has gone on before, one can begin again.
It put me to thinking about those distinctive lines from the first stanza of Matthew Arnold’s classic poem, Dover Beach. Written, some say, on Arnold’s honeymoon, against those beautiful white cliffs of Dover on the English seacoast, the poet reflects on the sights and sounds of the sea which was, perhaps, just outside his window. Perchance while his new bride slept, he first penned the words that speak of the regularity, the security, the melancholy and the comfort of the life’s predictability, where things end and begin:
Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring the eternal note of sadness in.
Whatever Arnold might have originally intended these words to celebrate, this year, I am observing up close and respecting with great gratitude, just over thirty Albanian adults of all ages in Athens, Greece, who, despite the many obstacles in their pathway toward freedom and opportunity, are diving into the sea of knowledge again, seeking to learn how to speak English. With the rhythm of the sea, the actual sound and fury of which are no more than twenty minutes from their classrooms, they and their teachers are beginning again.
And, so am I!