Last Wednesday afternoon, I was teaching, as I have off and on for some 20 years, James Agee’s hypnotic essay “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” It’s the last time I’m likely to teach it, so it was especially moving to me this time. I’ve got a terrific class of eight smart, quirky, avid first-year students. We got to talking about that haunting opening phrase—so successfully disguised to myself as a child—and what it meant, and I sent the students into breakout rooms to continue the discussion privately among themselves. This left me alone in my office for a few minutes, at my standing desk, looking out the window. Where I saw, unusually for a cold February afternoon, snow on the ground, twilight settling in, a child—a girl, I think—in pink leggings and a helmet and maybe a facemask (I couldn’t quite tell) balancing on a Segway. Spinning, actually, around the little circle of snow-shoveled macadam at the end of the neighboring street.
Successfully disguised to herself as a child, I thought.
And then another child: a boy this time, I think, on roller skates. Also helmeted and, possibly, masked. I couldn’t make out faces, could only guess at their ages and genders. But there they were, spinning in spheres wide and narrow as my students talked invisibly to one another about what Agee’s phrase meant to them in their lives.
Two adults, I thought, disguised as children, tracing circles on a patch of pavement. Not unlike Agee’s fathers with their hoses, and his mothers with their damp hands, and his kids running hell-bent through the neighborhood in 1915 calling out “those names by which they were known.” Spinning or circling in much the same way the adults in Agee’s essay talk as they lie on quilts in the fading light: “of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.”
My students are for the most part 18, and experiencing a first year of college such as few, if any, have ever experienced. Most are living at home; a handful have ventured on campus, where they’re under strict rules. Still, they’re game. They turn up at 4 pm on Zoom with smiles and water bottles and, last week, ice cream. They’re marvelously not children—well into the period when they’re shaping their adult lives. One wants to be a doctor, one wants to be a medical examiner, one wants to be president of the United States. As my students talked in their breakout rooms, I watched those two children on the street outside my window and remembered the strange maturity one feels a child, possessed of an uncanny wisdom about the world—a wisdom mostly disguised to outsiders. I feel something of that disconnect today—a child on the verge of retirement, still trying to make sense of my surroundings and my future. I’ve never quite understood Agee’s essay as clearly as I did last week, watching those two child-adults etching circles on a snowy street. Soon my students came back from their breakouts, and we resumed our conversation. When I looked out the window again the children had vanished.