Almost to the Lighthouse

by Sarah Heidt '97, Associate Professor of English

I had feared I would have to deliver this bad news to my students. “Hi Sarah,” the text message read, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the sea conditions are too poor to take the Godrevy Lighthouse trip.”

I had taken my Kenyon-Exeter Program students to St. Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall in southwestern England, in mid-March, as one of the last excursions of our “Homes and Haunts” course, in which we examined the phenomenon of literary tourism. Because we were about to begin discussing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, we had hoped to take a boat trip to Godrevy Lighthouse—the lighthouse that, having shone on Woolf’s childhood vacations to St. Ives in the 1880s and 1890s, became the Scottish lighthouse her young character James Ramsay devoutly hopes to visit at the outset of her 1927 novel.

Now, for the second day running, it wasn’t fine enough to make the trip.

Having sent out the bad news, I found myself—not for the first time—thinking about how To the Lighthouse has been a kind of touchstone for my time as the 2011-12 resident director of the Kenyon-Exeter Program, the year-long study-abroad program on which I was a student sixteen years ago, in 1995-96. Guided by the way Woolf explores the dimensions that memory adds to our ongoing experiences, I realized in St. Ives that I was living all of our program activities doubly. I was a teacher trying to create memorable or even inspirational experiences for her students and imagining what their memories might turn out to be. I was also a former student contemplating the impact her first Kenyon-Exeter experience had on her life.

This dual perspective was most powerful when we visited sites this year that had also been part of the program as directed sixteen years ago by my then-professor, now-colleague Deborah Laycock. I took my students to spend a night at a clifftop youth hostel in Tintagel, on the Cornwall coast, largely because of my unsuccessful attempt to stay there as a student. During our last trip, to the Lake District, we climbed a very high hill in pursuit of a view of Ullswater I’ve wanted to see again since 1996. And the legendary Kenyon-Exeter Thanksgiving dinner took place at the Bridge Inn of Topsham, the same sixteenth-century pub where I first ate pureed turnips in 1995.

Fortunately, as director I somehow intuited that we all needed to experience the 2011-12 Kenyon-Exeter Program for itself, rather than as some attempt to relive my experience on the 1995-96 program. I did not take my students to see flaming tar barrels being carried on burly men’s backs at Ottery St. Mary on Guy Fawkes Day. Nor did I take them to Durdle Door on the south Dorset coast, indelible in my memory since I visited it with Deborah and a couple of classmates in 1996 because we loved a guidebook photograph.

Partly because of the staying power of my own Kenyon-Exeter memories, I spent my year as resident director acutely aware of the fact that my students were forming memories all the time. Everywhere we traveled—through southwest England, through London, through Ireland and the Lake District—I did everything I could to ensure that they could gather enough extraordinary recollections to counterbalance the year’s inevitable disappointments.

When our second attempt at the St. Ives boat trip was canceled, I thought, much as Mrs. Ramsay does when she knows her son James will not be going to the lighthouse, “They will remember this all their lives.” Yet—partly because of what Woolf shows us about James Ramsay’s later life, when he doesn’t remember his disappointment in exacting detail—I knew that that wasn’t quite true.

My students might remember something from that weekend in St. Ives all their lives. Since we couldn’t go in the boat, many of us hiked as close to the lighthouse as we could. The views we encountered there, and the seals we found in a nearby cove, might stay with them.    

I was there for some of the other moments that might last their lifetimes—like the moment a dolphin leapt out of the water beside our ferry off the coast of western Ireland, then swam alongside us until we docked. But many of the students’ most memorable experiences undoubtedly took place without my having been involved in them, or even cognizant of them, at all.

And that is—as both of my Kenyon-Exeter experiences have taught me—just as it should be.  

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