Dr. Craig Challender’s career at Longwood ended with two poems.
The one a student asked him to read was Music is Like Dirt by Frank Bidart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whom Challender had brought to campus this year as part of the Longwood Author Series.
Once he finished, he recited a poem that is close to his own heart: What Men Want, by Stephen Dunn, a New York poet.
What a man wants is the power
to name the terms of his rescue,
and to know when it’s time
to close the curtains,
usher in the private,
no longer live or resist
anyone else’s story.
And with that, the curtains fell on Challender’s his last class of his last semester. The professor of modern American literature and faculty marshal was emotional, but confident in his decision to hang it up. After all, as he says, the time to retire is when people still want you to stay.
Making the moment even more poignant, the 1:30 p.m. English 360 American Narrative Poetry class happened to also be the last one for two graduating seniors, Annie Polek and Carson Blackwood, both of whom will walk across the commencement stage on Saturday.
Annie Polek ‘19 rushed through the hot April afternoon to Grainger Hall. She was a minute or so late to class—her last class. But despite the near-perfect weather, she wanted to spend the next 90 minutes in Grainger Hall room 114.
“It doesn’t feel real,” she said, after class ended. “But I’m happy.”
For the English major with a creative writing concentration, the class was a fitting end to her Longwood career.
“I’m so glad my last class was with Dr. Challender,” she said. “I’ve had a few other classes with him and anyone who has ever taken one of his courses knows how sweet and engaging and generous he is with his time. He’s just such an important part of my senior year.”
Time goes by so quickly and then it’s over. Just find that right balance for your time and follow what makes you happy.Annie Polek ‘19 Tweet This
And with no exams to prepare for—only two final papers to write in the next week—the moment she stepped back out into the sun that Tuesday afternoon felt like the beginning of the end of something special. In that moment, she thought about herself as a freshman.
“I’d tell her to enjoy it,” said Polek, taking a deep breath. “Time goes by so quickly and then it’s over. Just find that right balance for your time and follow what makes you happy.”
It’s been a great experience, but I think I’m ready to start the next chapter of my life. It definitely feels crazy knowing that this is my last class period, but it’s exciting at the same time.Carson Blackwood ’19 Tweet This
Blackwood was also beaming.
“I’m excited,” said Carson Blackwood ’19. “It’s been a great experience, but I think I’m ready to start the next chapter of my life. It definitely feels crazy knowing that this is my last class period, but it’s exciting at the same time.”
Students in the classroom—a room with paper-white walls in the back of Grainger Hall that looks out onto Beale Plaza—had caught on to the fact that it’s Dr. Challender’s last class. As the stragglers just make it in time, they start to pepper him with questions: Are you sad? What will you miss? What will you do now?
“Those who stay as long as me do it because they love to teach and love the engagement with students."Dr. Craig Challender Tweet This
True to form, Challender answers honestly and succinctly. It’s time. I’m ready. I have books left to finish.
Then class starts. They’re finishing a discussion of Frank Bidart’s long narrative poem The Second Hour of the Night. The text weaves together personal stories with the Greek myth of Myrrah and Cinyras—a daughter who tricks her father into a relationship and gives birth to Adonis.
Students take turns reading sections and then discussing what they’ve heard, and it begins to feel like…a normal class, not some poignant reflection on Challender’s career or Polek’s experience at Longwood or Blackwood’s career dreams.
As a girl she had taught
herself to walk through a doorway as if
what she knows is on the other side is
NOT on the other side…
The Bidart piece is a poem about change, though, so perhaps it’s fitting that the theme carries the day. “Isn’t that the great thing about poetry,” Challender asks the class, “that part of us is always in there somewhere? These are moments that we can share and learn and grow from.”
The Midwest native first arrived in Farmville in 1983, brought in to not only teach English but to start a Writer’s Series that would attract top authors from around the country to speak at Longwood. It’s a role he found a passion for immediately.
“It’s been a way for me to enhance a student’s education in what I hope are profound ways,” he said. “I’ve always tried to bring in authors who were not only accomplished or extremely talented, but also good readers. It’s important to engage students on their level, to make them interested in the work.”
It sounds like the way he approaches teaching.
“One constant that has stayed the same about Longwood in the last 36 years is that it’s still a teaching school from a faculty standpoint,” he said. “Those who stay as long as me do it because they love to teach and love the engagement with students. I always try to carry on conversations with my classes rather than lecture. I’ve read this stuff and I know what it’s about, but students come to it with a new pair of eyes, and we can learn more from that. They often see things in plays and poems that I’ve taught for years that I’ve not considered before.”
After the Dunn poem, Challender takes a deep breath.
Then, when the moment has passed, it’s back to a few more items before dismissal: when to turn in the final essay that will be their exam, when he’ll be available in his office, when grades will be posted.
And then…that’s it. Class is over.
The students clap, then one says “Thank you, Dr. Challender.”
“It’s been a great class,” he says, his voice wavering, but not cracking. “Thank you. It’s a wonderful way to go out.”
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