My parents probably knew from my earliest age that I was going to be a professor when I grew up. Their clue would not have come from any particular academic proclivity nor from an unusual love of learning, but rather from the one quality I possessed that the general public has always associated with professors: absent-mindedness.
As a child I never met a mitten, jacket, or gym shoe that I liked enough to remember to take with me when I boarded the school bus at the end of the day. If it could be left behind, it was; if it could be misplaced, I misplaced it; if it wasn’t attached, it was in the Lost and Found (or, all too often, the Lost and Never Found). I remember being genuinely surprised when I learned in junior high school that my head was attached to my body by muscles and spinal cord rather than by metal. After all, I had been told since I was age five: “Elliot, if your head weren’t screwed on to your shoulders, you’d forget it, too!”
So years later, when I prepared and memorized my first Dickens lecture, I worried that I couldn’t recite it for fifty minutes without forgetting a crucial phrase or two. Now it is forty-five years later, and I am lecturing on over one hundred different topics — many but not all of them memorized and all approximately fifty minutes long. And even though my absent-mindedness has continued into my seventh decade, isn't it ironic that my profession as a national lecturer today depends as much on a good memory as on any other talent?
I admit to having occasional nightmares when I dream of confusing my Mark Twain talk with my Emily Dickinson lecture and end up telling an audience of scholars that Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, but lived most of his life as a reclusive spinster in Amherst, Massachusetts. But in actuality I have yet to forget a chunk of any speech nor have I married off a Brontë sister to Edgar Allan Poe or William Shakespeare. So far, never the Twain did meet Ms. Emily or any other inappropriate lecture lady.
Most of my talks also contain memorizations within the speech itself since I’m usually quoting from some poem or other literary work of a particular author (the opening lines of The Raven for Poe or Kipling’s If for the conclusion of my Winston Churchill talk). Even as a child I felt a special joy in trying to memorize a poem. The expression “to know by heart” is an apt one, for when we merely read a poem we engage our mind, but when we memorize it we do seem to make it our own by directly taking it into our hearts.
And speaking of memory, I shall never forget a talk I gave many years ago to a group of high school students in rural Surry County, North Carolina (near Mount Airy, hometown of Andy Griffith). The teacher had requested my Light History of English presentation. When I came to the section on Chaucer, I started to recite the famous opening fourteen lines in the original Middle English. As I began, I heard a rather loud mumbling among my student audience. Was I boring them? Imagine my surprise — and joy — when I realized that they were quietly reciting the lines with me in accents and rhythms as good (or better, to tell the truth) than mine. There we were — a middle-aged English professor and one hundred seventeen-year-olds — paying homage to an English writer who, 600 years ago (in about 1392), penned a description of April so moving that it has become immortal and has inspired each new generation with both delight and gratitude for its refreshing beauty.
That was a rare communion in the Surry County high school gymnasium. And I hope that no matter how absent-minded I may become in the future, that particular memory will never be absent from my mind. Like Chaucer’s poem it remains ever fresh to inspire me with the renewal that comes with spring—and with teaching.