A Professor’s Journal: The humbling, inspiring silent classroom

It is a humbling and inspirational experience to sit all alone in a silent classroom.

I often seek out one of my classrooms at Murray State after the end of a term or before the beginning of a semester.

I have tried to recapture that wonderful, but frightening smell—some combination of freshly-painted walls and lockers, old textbooks, and floor wax—that I remember when walking through the halls of the old Dixon school building in my hometown in Webster County, Kentucky.

After Dixon, Clay, Sebree, and Slaughters consolidated to form Webster County High School in 1964, the old high school buildings continued to serve students.

We lived next door to the old Dixon school and my mother, an elementary teacher, and I would find her classroom to put up bulletin boards and position desks in the late summer before the students returned for the Fall term.

Janitors and teachers and the principal would already have been at work and although the ancient building was in decay, their efforts to prepare the place

for yet another school year produced that distinctive aroma that I will continue to long for.

Classrooms in Faculty Hall, a 1970s structure, produce a different smell altogether, but the aura of the empty, silent classroom is still there, and it is still inspiring to me.

I unlock the door, decide not to flip on the lights, and sit at the desk at the front of the room.

Six rows of desks, seven seats deep, line up and a prominent clock ticks off the passing minutes.

I have seen paintings of the interiors of one-room schools where the benches and seats hug the four walls, and my high school history teacher arranged his desks in a U-shape only two seats deep so that he could roam the area down the middle and confront students directly.

The typical classroom – lined up desks in rows, although some professors go to the trouble of moving seats around.

School bells, some just outside the school door and some hand-held and hand-rung by the teacher, called students to their scholarly work, but today students rush into class, glancing at the clock before plopping down

backpacks, books and cell phones.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the familiar rows of desks, along with the clock, appeared after the industrial revolution.

Classrooms mirrored the factory. Workers clocked in and clocked out, and in a sense the school became a factory.

The nobility of a plant worker, as well as a teacher, has been insured by better working conditions, but the vestiges of industrialism remain as students line up in straight rows of desks and as they are bound to fixed shifts of class time—fifty minutes for Monday, Wednesday and Friday classes, and an hour and fifteen minutes for Tuesday, Thursday classes—to learn what there is to be learned.

I envision what will take place here when the seats are filled with undergraduates and graduate students.

I imagine the excitement of learning and the surprise of understanding a concept for the first time or in a new way. I anticipate the unbelievable potential of young and active minds in the pursuit of learning.

Classes have now met for three weeks. The seats are occupied, the halls crowded, office hours filled.

The reverie of sitting in an empty, classroom is over and the thrill of walking into a packed classroom is here.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.