charles saydah, Alum
Columbia College 1967
The guy was tall, lean and looked a little seedy. His walk seemed a cocky amble. His face took on aspects of pain, fatalism and bemusement. His hair seemed more a perverse steel brush with long bristles than any regular coif one might have associated with smoother-edged faculty.
He introduced himself as George Stade, then a young instructor in the English and Comparative Literature Department; as was the custom of the time, we were to call him Mr. Stade. He was my freshman English teacher in September 1963, and I can state without equivocation no teacher at Columbia influenced me more.
The key moment came one day in class when we were talking about Shakespeare's sonnets -- one of our first semester assignments was to read them all and use them as starting points for longer essays. It was all bewildering for me, a youth with absolutely no idea of literature, what it was about, how it worked and why. Poetry, when it was not incredibly ludicrous, was like a foreign language with non-Indo-Aryan roots. I had only the visceral understanding of the vaguely educated adolescent with no ability to explain. I had not yet developed what Kenneth Koch once identified for me as "a gift of gab for intellectual matters."
The discussion in this one particular class got around to art and the idea of aesthetics. Mr. Stade asked: "What is an aesthetic experience?" Silence. Obviously, most of my classmates were in the same boat I was in. To encourage us, Mr. Stade suggested an example. He recounted a story from his football playing days at St. Lawrence University. He was playing defense, he said. It was a practice session, so what happened next had little significance for the team; no one was cheering. He set himself up to tackle an oncoming ball carrier. Timing his move to the ball carrier's forward motion, he drove with his legs and rammed his shoulder swiftly, accurately and violently into the carrier's midsection, wrapped his arms around the guy's waist and drove him to the ground. It was a textbook tackle performed in classic fashion. Nobody got hurt. He got up, the ball carrier got up, and that was it.
"Is that an aesthetic experience?" he asked.
Now here was something my pathetically undeveloped young mind could relate to. Of course it was. From that point on, he had me engaged.
I had many more positive encounters with Mr. Stade. He went out of his way for me on several occasions, significent gestures from a man who once said he remembered me but would not consider me one of his 10 best students. To this day, I am grateful for those kindnesses and efforts at reaching out and support.
But I most treasure what Mr. Stade did for my life. His little question about the aesthetic experience was as powerful a stimulus as trying to understand in my Contemporary Civilization class what Aristotle meant when he declared in "On Politics": "Man is a political animal."
Trying to understand and answer questions like Mr. Stade's brought me into the realm of Aristotle's world -- indeed, the world of all those names chiseled on the facades of Butler. It told me that my experience had value so long as I could understand it as part of the wider human experience. It converted the four-year experience of a Columbia undergraduate education into a life-time adventure. You can't ask anything more of a teacher. How I might have used this legacy is a matter for someone else to judge. But for opening the door, I am eternally grateful to Mr. Stade.