Earl grey smells like Hamilton

A chance occurrence at work triggered old memories and a burst of creativity in Ryan.

{ ... }

One afternoon last week, during a sleepy stretch of afternoon, when I ought to have been drafting a presentation for work but couldn’t focus, I lumbered into the kitchen to brew a cup of tea.

I closed the tap, shut my eyes, and inhaled deeply, taking in the distinctive smell of the earl grey leaves. 

{ … }

I take a seat in a small office in Lawrence Hall, partially below ground, in a wing of a building built into the hill on which Colgate University sits. Fallen leaves are pushed up against a tall, narrow window. Light pours in through the top, revealing the dust floating through the room. 

A machine rumbles in the corner of the room. The sound dies down and the smell of tea suffuses the room. For a moment it even crowds out the smell of musty, fraying editions of Plato and Aeschylus.

{ … }

Joshua Reynolds, professor of ancient Greek, hands me the cup of tea. It was a small gesture, the least he could do before he tore apart my translation of the opening lines of Seven Against Thebes and the shoddy argument about it I had slapped together.

Professor Reynolds, or JJ (when he wasn’t around to hear us), was one of a half-dozen or so eminently talented professors who taught in the Classics department at Colgate. My professors -- from post-docs to associates and endowed chairs -- were always dynamic; each class presented new challenges and fresh perspectives on old texts.* 

At Colgate, I enjoyed the company of friendly, motivated classmates, who were dedicated to the discipline. The room where we met was as well appointed as any I’ve seen in 25 years of teaching and learning.**

The professors, though, made everyone and everything shine. 

And while some had more flair, some I got to know better, and others I have kept in touch with more consistently since leaving Colgate, Professor Reynolds, more than anyone else, pushed me to be better. 

I felt compelled to impress him; there was something about Josh that was worthy of emulation.  It was, in part, how he carried himself: never boastful, always just informal enough to relax the room, but without stooping for our approval. Most importantly, he detested laziness in all its forms. 

The work I brought to Josh’s office that day was the last Classics assignment, whether at Colgate, for my M.A.T., or in my time teaching, that was less than my best. Over many more weeks and cups of earl grey tea, a final draft of my essay on the Seven took shape. It was nothing groundbreaking. At the end of the semester, I filed it away, then forgot about for eight years -- until I found it while packing for the move to Holland. 

And then the other day, the smell of that cup of tea brought me back to his office.

{ … }

The first major hurdle I must clear at my new job is to produce a massive investigation into the nature of Classical languages instruction in secondary schools around the world, so that I can make initial recommendations for a curriculum that will, hopefully, reach more than 10,000 students in every corner of the world.

My deadline is far enough off that it seems hard to comprehend finishing. There days when writing is impossible; motivation can be hard to find when the low, grey clouds roll off the North Sea and settle over Scheveningen. Dim office lights and fuzzy computer displays shake the focus. An empty agenda does little to stir the creative juices. 

But a cup of earl grey tea, I’ve learned, can work wonders. 


*There was one exception, yes, but it only made us appreciate the others even more.

**I might be biased, though, as the Keck Center, with its cherry panelling, leather couches, and a picturesque view of the quad, was also the place where I got engaged.