There’s been a glum feeling around campus these days, a mood that clashes with the exhilaration surrounding us in the natural world.
Finally free of winter, the Duke squirrels have begun frolicking and breeding underfoot. Plants and trees emit aphrodisiacal aromas. Birds tweet. Last week, 2,697 eighteen-year-olds checked the Duke website, screamed “OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!” and dumped what was left of senior year in the trash.
But things are somber for the rest of us. To take one example, over here in 207 Language Building, even in the company of Chekhov—the brightest and sanest of them all—we engage in a daily battle with dank air and noise. Our granite neighbor is having its innards scooped out. Dynamite, giant hammers, the scariest crane I’ve ever seen, grim, helmeted men shouting in incoherent monosyllables.
Basic physics offers two unappealing choice—one, close the windows and inhale a toxic mix of carbon dioxide and human miasmas, or two, open the windows and let the construction noise shatter our brains. We bear witness to the Russian saying, “Torture is the mother of learning” (muchenie—mat’ uchenia). Classwork feels reluctant, droopy, and hard won. And that’s not the half of it.
Fate ensured perversely, as it does every year, that the coming of Spring would coincide with the ripening of deadlines—midterms, projects, applications. Some of those deadlines had been kicked down the road to allow room for some of Duke’s more esoteric and mysterious rites of passage, things faculty can only guess at from their external signs—traces of blue paint, trample marks on the quad, bleary, red-rimmed eyes, the occasional snore in class, business suits on young males.
And, of course, basketball. March was hard. It slunk out uncelebrated, its heroic efforts falling, as Uncle Vanya would say, like a sunbeam into a dark pit. Along with many of you, right up to the last moment I admired the fine art that is Duke basketball, and thank everyone on our amazing teams who gave us the pleasure of watching them play. But everything comes to an end—that’s what seasons are for. We are now recovering—as, by the way, we always have to, whatever and whenever the results.
So chin up. Practice your coping skills. Might as well start with class. Hone your tactics and demeanor. Indulge your professor, who assumes his or her class is your primary focus, the high point in your Duke existence, the trigger of all your epiphanies, intellectually, professionally, spiritually, and personally. Do not disabuse this important person of this false notion. You may even find comfort in the things she makes you read and write. Humor me— at least for now, it’s all about Russian literature.
Round about this time of year I remind myself that there are as many varieties of excellence as there are people around here. Not all that long ago I used to live in Wilson dorm, where students used to drop in for this and that. At one event, three first-year residents ended up in a neat little line at the kitchen counter, sipping tea. Turns out, in a wild coincidence, when they were in high school all three of them had performed the lead in the Nutcracker. The whole package—full orchestra, video cameras, thundering applause, bouquets. And for the next four years, they danced their way through Duke. I scanned the other thirty students in the room, wondering what genius they were harboring inside.
There is something in everyone, and let me tell you right up front, it has absolutely nothing to do with what you got on your SATs. It might even have nothing to do with whatever it was that got you into Duke. You may be one of those lucky few who recognized your calling (the thing admissions officers like to stress you out with by calling it your “passion”) back in elementary school.
More likely, you are still wondering what it might be. Stay alert, maybe you’ll find it in class. I’m here to tell you that the person sitting next to you—or maybe you—might very well be on the All-American First Team of Russian Literary Study, or, in fact, on the All American First Team of Just about Anything.
Carol Apollonio is a professor of the practice in Slavic and Eurasian studies. Her column is the seventh installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.