Julia, who teaches English and theology at the Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco studied at Exeter College, Oxford. She writes –
In Shakespeare's Henry V, King Henry gives one of the most memorable speeches in all of drama. Speaking to his fatigued and beleaguered armies on the Feast of St. Crispin as they prepare for what is now known historically as "The Battle of Agincourt " (1415), he names his wizened warriors who are about to shed blood, a "band of brothers." Miraculously, they go on to defeat the French that day. On July 20, 2015, the summer school students at Exeter College gathered in the chapel to mark this bittersweet event. We silently entered the intricate and quiet space, flanked by high stain-glass windows and dark-wooden pews, then sat down to await Richard Byrne, son of Austenite and Summer School Director, Dr. Sandie Byrne, lead us in a meditative marking of all lives lost, of courage shared, and of the brilliant and romantic words of the Bard. Shakespeare scholar and tutor, Dr. John O'Connor and his fabulous wife, Kelly, assisted in the readings, creating an atmosphere of simple solemnity and serendipity for all who listened.
This was one of many extraordinary moments experienced this summer in Oxford. We were not preparing for a military battle, but as many of us have been in the long-term trenches of teaching high school, a tough and rewarding work, we knew a little of our own enervation. The blessing of being a B.U.S.S. scholar over three of the most stimulating and substantial weeks of my life, felt like the inspiritment of King Henry's words, inciting my heart and mind with the rigorous renewing passion of eons of art and scholarship. I never could have imagined the challenges and the joy I would feel learning in one of the most captivating environments in the world.
Thanks to the visionary work of the E.S.U., I became a student again. I took two seminars consisting of brilliant tutors and between 7-12 participants: Shakespeare and Politics, and The English Romantic Poets. Other students, which included the B.U.S.S. teachers and an enthusiastic mix of U.S. undergraduates and European graduate students and teachers, took classes ranging from Anglo-Saxon literature to contemporary literature. Our classes were demanding. We read copious amounts of preparatory assignments, which for me included multiple Shakespearean plays and criticism, and extensive epic poetry. I also had to do considerable research in the world-famous Bodleian Library, culminating in a near-3000 word essay scrutinized by my professor. At the close of the session all students met for a brief tutorial to go over their essays. I was very nervous, but greatly appreciative of the challenge—and thankfully, I did pretty well on the paper too.
Yet the mind-exploding classroom experiences were but a few of the sources of dramatic renewal this summer. Daily morning lectures from Oxford teachers, trips to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit Shakespeare's home and watch Othello or The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a visit to the Roman Baths in Jane Austen's Bath, numerous nightly outings in Oxford to see outdoor plays or visit world-class museums, and the spontaneous daily jaunts into the stunning garden courtyards of various Oxford campuses—including the Harry Potter dining hall and staircase at Christ Church and the alma maters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, and J.R. Tolkien, were just part of the ongoing time-travel of Oxford.
I think that the most brilliant boon of this summer, however, was sharing the journey with new friends. Partaking Pimms with professors, awkwardly punting along the Thames in bouts of uncontrollable laughter, savoring the plentiful meals in the school hall or the celebrated Turf Tavern, spiraling the medieval-like wooden staircases up to our dorm rooms, casually chatting along the stone-cobbled streets, maneuvering the masses of tourists, and meeting people from England, Ireland, Australia, Russia, Switzerland, and all over the U.S., induced the sense of being back in college, filled with hopes and dreams where believing in the transformative power of learning, seeking truth, and sharing one's life story with like-minded explorers is fecund.
Studying this summer at Oxford was like being in a luminous living museum, but also getting a taste of the intangible, the things that can never be captured in any exhibit. My renewed love of learning and gratitude for being a teacher was affirmed in infinitely unexpected ways. I'm not a soldier facing an intimidating enemy, but no doubt I am now part of a newly animated and ever-dauntless band of learners. This experience is undoubtedly the most memorable and meaningful professional one of my life. Thank you, thank you, E.S.U. San-Francisco!
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