Like so many significant events throughout the history of the Western world, my humanities moment begins on the banks of the River Tiber in Rome. I had just crossed the Ponte Sisto bridge and was standing at the crosswalk to Piazza Trilussa in the Trastevere neighborhood. The sky was crystal clear and had the color of deep blue topaz, and the sun was bearing down in an unforgivable blaze. Only three minutes prior I had been hellbent on making it back to my AirBnB as quickly as possible; I desperately needed an hour or two of rest and relaxation in air conditioning.

But the Tiber pulled me back.

I asked my spouse Brandon if he minded my turning back to get a photo. Ever the Type-B match to my persistently Type-A personality, he said it was no problem, even though I know he was just as ready to be back our apartment as I was.

I approached the bridge’s short wall and gazed out. The river was moving at an even pace, but its motion looked lazy in comparison to the times that I had visited Rome in the spring—when the snow from the Alps melted into the tributaries and flooded rivers like the Tiber with a rush of new life and renewed possibility.

I recalled a Horace poem that I read during a summer Latin language-learning intensive I attended three years prior. It was not a particularly inclusive environment. The institute taught Latin via the nineteenth-century-style grammar-syntax model, demanding its students to learn the language, not as a vibrant cultural milieu brimming with life and storytelling, but as if it were a mathematical equation to be decoded and solved. In this program, there was no room for nuance.

As a burgeoning literary scholar, I struggled with this model because my entire academic career had been built on the notion that meaning and context are fluid. So, when I encountered one of Horace’s Carmina describing the Tiber as yellow, I was baffled by the adjective/noun agreement. Bordering frustration, I asked an instructor of the institute, and he casually (and not a little derisively) explained that if I had ever been to Rome, I would know that the river looked yellow.

Having not had the resources to travel abroad in well over a decade, I felt ashamed, small, and provincial. It was July 2016 at this time, and the preceding August I lost my mother to a long-term illness that none of us knew she had. Her passing was quick, but the grief stuck around. This instructor’s condescension cut deeper than my ineptitude at translating Latin poetry. It felt like an indictment of my life, the choices I made, and the opportunities that had not been afforded to me.

The only amelioration was my summer study group that year, the group of underdogs that kept me tethered to the Earth and from going completely mad.

(I should note, we were the underdogs not because we were somehow lesser than intellectually, but because we were all pursuing advanced degrees in higher education. We all were also, it should be known, the only students in the entire program who fit into some category of “minority” student; we were either female, or BIPOC, or LGBTQ+, or first-gen, or a combination of all the above. But we persisted, and all of us managed to hobble over the finish line after three months of intensive study.)

When I saw for myself the yellow tinge of the Tiber last summer, this pedagogical memory came flooding back to me.

But instead of feeling sad or sorrowful, I felt empowered—vindicated, even—because I was in Rome for a professional reason. I was invited to present a paper at the European Shakespeare Research Association, an experience that would eventually lead to my first peer-reviewed publication the following spring. The inclusivity I felt in that moment resonated greatly with me.

Unlike my experience three years prior, my voice was valued and sought after. I mattered.

My education and language-acquisition struggles being what they were, it gave me perspective. Yes, I can see for myself now that the river looks yellow. It is a beautiful sight, to be sure, but the yellow river is not all that different from the brackish waters I grew up with in Mississippi.

I can guarantee, however, that I will convey this piece of trivia in a more accessible way to my students, those like myself, who a few years prior was someone with little cultural capital but the rapacious desire to research, to learn, and with a little help of my friends, to lift myself out of a life that felt inescapable.

– Alexander Lowe McAdams (Literary Scholar and Dedicated Pedagogue)