Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Anita G. Gorman

It was spring, finally, at Ashleyville College in the lovely town of Ashleyville, Ohio. Hortense Lilymadden was teaching English 211, Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Her class had forty-seven chairs, and the same number of students were enrolled in her class, but a number of seats were empty on that day. The class was much too large, she knew. There was no way she could give individual attention to so many students. The dean had decided that forty-seven students were to be enrolled in English 211, because that was the maximum number the Ashleyville Fire Department would allow. Sometimes she wondered whether, in deference to the AFD, she should be teaching only short stories and novels that had to do with fire, or that mentioned fire. Maybe the theme of fire would attract more students. Or perhaps only pyromaniacs, and there probably weren’t forty-seven of those on campus, but, who knew, maybe there were.

Dr. Hortense Lilymadden was attempting to teach one of her favorite poems, “Loveliest of Trees,” by A.E. Housman. She had discussed the meter, the clever juxtaposition of certain words, the imagery, the theme of enjoying life, of enjoying spring. And here it was, spring, and she was not enjoying it. She was inside a dull classroom filled with dull students. She herself was dull. The class wasn’t on fire, so to speak, in spite of the Ashleyville Fire Department’s intervention in classroom procedures. Then she remembered something.

Years before, when she was in college in another town and in another state, one of her professors said that a famous person had walked out of a similarly dull classroom saying, “I have a date with spring.” And he never came back.

And suddenly Hortense Lilymadden decided to share a part of her life with her students. She gazed out the window at a flowering crab tree. “You know, one spring day when I was in college one of my professors told a story. My professor, Dr. Hiram Tarkinton, was talking about the philosopher George Santayana. Santayana was teaching at Harvard University, and on a spring day much like this one, he was discoursing about something or other and suddenly Santayana looked out of the window and said, ‘I have a date with spring.’ And he walked out of his classroom and never returned.”

Dr. Lilymadden turned her attention from the flowering crab tree back to her students. They all seemed to be watching her and listening. “Well, I see you are all paying attention, for a change. Perhaps I should talk about my younger days more often. Or, on the other hand, perhaps I earned your attention by suggesting that I might pull a Santayana, tell you that I have a date with spring, and leave.” A ripple of laughter spread from row to row.

“But, wait. There’s a problem.” The laughter stopped. “I am not sure that I have the story right. When I tried to check the accuracy of that anecdote about Santayana, I couldn’t find anything. That was before the internet. Maybe I can verify it now. After all, we’re in what they call a smart classroom.”

It was a smart classroom not because of the brilliance of the professor or the acumen of the students, but because of the presence of a computer that chose to function from time to time, and a screen on which the computer’s knowledge could be displayed. Dr. Hortense Lilymadden started typing key words: Santayana; spring; date. Nothing relevant came up. Then she started to ask the computer questions: Did George Santayana say he had a date with spring? Did George Santayana suddenly leave his class and not return? Did Santayana climb out of a window at Harvard University?

That last question made her students laugh. “Well, maybe he was in a first-floor classroom, just like this one.” She looked toward the window.

She tried and tried, but nothing came up on the computer, nothing relevant at any rate. Then Hortense Lilymadden started to muse about memory. “Memory is a tricky thing. We forget so much as we age, but we remember a great deal, and some of what we remember may be inaccurate. Maybe George Santayana did leave his class for a date with spring a hundred years ago. And maybe he didn’t. But here’s something for all of you to remember. I myself have a date with spring.”

And Dr. Lilymadden opened a window, pulled a chair up to it, and climbed out. Rather awkwardly. Then she was gone. The students murmured among themselves. Then they put their books in their book bags and stole away.

In days to come students and faculty spoke about Dr. Hortense Lilymadden. Then many forgot about her. No one knows where she went or what she did after climbing out of the window. Perhaps she lived a hidden life doing nothing in particular. Some of her more enterprising students made up stories about the post-window life of their professor: she joined the circus; she moved to a part of the world where it was always spring (wherever that might be); she ran away with a disillusioned dentist and together they made life better for dentally challenged inhabitants of a previously unknown land. In fact, in the end, and in effect, Doctor Hortense Lilymadden morphed into an icon, an idol, a goal, a symbol of the seemingly endless possibilities that this life offers, again and again.

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