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Oxford lessons give memories to last a lifetime

SUBMITTED PHOTO  - Keonjian poses for a photo in front of a stately building during her Oxford school days.

The window in my small third-floor dorm room was cranked open.

Outside, in the distance, were what I had hoped for 20 years to see again: the "dreaming spires" of Oxford, their ancient towers fading into the twilight. The heavy suitcase loaded with textbooks and the 1,000-word paper done at home was not yet unpacked. Standing at the window, I waited.

Finally, there it was: the deep, slow bonging of Great Tom, the huge 300-year-old bell in the Christ Church College tower blocks away, booming 101 strokes in honor of the college's 100 original students plus one when founded by Henry VIII. In centuries past when it rang at 9:05 p.m. each night, it had meant that the gates of all Oxford colleges were to be locked for the night. But no longer; times had changed, yet Great Tom still rang out over the university, founded almost 10 centuries before.

My summer school at Oxford had begun.

My classmates, the Cornish teacher, Australian poet, Chinese medical student and others were all ages, all backgrounds, but soon friends, sharing stories over meals or a pint in a crowded pub. I often talked with retired Scottish special forces member Duncan, who was taking philosophy. He discussed what he learned. I just listened to his lovely brogue, and whether I could understood it or not, it was music to my ears.

In class, our tutor (professor) didn't lecture. Instead, she asked questions, in the Socratic teaching method used at Oxford. "What was happening then?" "Why is that important?" "What was the reason?" For one who loves learning, it was exciting to be asked to think, to discuss, to explore ideas instead of taking endless notes for a test. As one who is never without an opinion, however, it was difficult for me to give the more reserved classmates a chance to answer before I jumped in, but I was forgiven because I was, after all, just being an eager American.

To research my next paper, I happily submerged myself in a library of ancient books, with that intoxicating smell of old leather and musty pages all around. It would have been heaven to stay there for days, pulling books from the shelf just to leaf through the old pages, reading words written so many years before.

Working in the computer lab later, however, I had to get help from a grinning young student just to connect to the printer.

Old learning, new learning, all an adventure. Afternoons were for wandering the cobblestone streets or finding a tea room or park away from the busloads of tourists, just sitting and remembering the eminent writers who had walked here as students so many years before. Perhaps their ghosts were still there, planning more stories about Alice and the White Rabbit, Frodo Baggins and Narnia’s witches under the old trees.

One night, there was a candlelight harpsichord and viola performance in the soaring chapel of Exeter College. The crowd quickly filled the carved wooden pews long before the starting notes. When the concert began in early evening, the sun shone through the deep colors of the magnificent, tall stained-glass windows, the music falling and rising as the sun set behind them. By the end of the concert, night had fallen, and it was completely dark inside the chapel, illuminated only by the candelabra near the performers as the music died away. We filed quietly out, reluctant to leave that peaceful, timeless place.

Afterward, I walked slowly back to my room over the worn cobblestones under faint yellow streetlights, unwilling to return to the modern world just yet. Time enough for that, tomorrow. For now, the friendly ghosts of Oxford could accompany me home.

Peggy Keonjian is a member of the Jottings group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.