Friday, April 20, 2012

Home, Willa Cather, and My Classroom

Jim Schaefer

Years after she left Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather claimed that her writing was best “when she stopped trying to write and began to remember” (Betts 124). But, as she started to remember, in her book, The Best Years, she identified a wonderful sense of what it was like to be “home.”

She said that “she gave herself up to the feeling of being at home. It went all through her, that feeling, like getting into a warm bath when one is tired. She was safe from everything, was where she wanted to be, where she ought to be” (Betts 124). I try to fashion the space known as my classroom in an attempt to evoke that sense of belonging in my students. Not all, perhaps none, of them have experienced what’s it like to live where Willa lived, from 9 to 16 years old, while in a small town like Red Cloud, which has a certain “timeless quality” as the center of an agricultural district. A walk down Webster Street, the town’s main commercial avenue, still reveals buildings like the 1880s Opera House where William Jennings Bryan once spoke. Although my students may not have had that kind of idyllic living situation, they are often familiar with the frustrations that Willa faced in everyday life. Her house may have seemed spacious, with its 14-foot ceilings and “rambling succession of rooms” (Betts 124), but she had to share it with her parents and six brothers and sisters. The only way she could have her own space was in a corner of the attic, which was partitioned off from the boys’ row of beds and which she had put up rose-patterned wallpaper she bought with her earnings from her first job at Dr. Cook’s pharmacy. While this was not the stuff of a glamorous life, it was, as Willa later wrote, “the material out of which countries are made,” the long unfolding of events in a family and the community as family. The larger classroom of life, where our sense of home, our literary guides like Willa, and the activities in our classrooms all merge together in a profound learning process.


Betts, G. R. (1981). Writers in Residence: American Authors at Home. New York: A Studio Press/The Viking Press, 1981.

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