Monday, November 12, 2012

"What is Literature": Memories of a Loved Prof

I suppose they can go by many names.

Mentor, teacher, friend, mother, sister, advisor, role-model.

In my writing and intellectual life, I was raised by mothers and aunts and sisters. I'm thinking about creating a series of posts recognizing a few of these people. A sort of "thanksgiving" by way of memory. These are people who act as sign posts, as guides, as fellow pilgrims. I would be lost without them.

A week ago, I was thinking of one such woman as I went about my reading and writing and day-preparations. Nearly 20 days later, I remember that I never replied to her latest email.

I write her back and find out that she has gone through a terrifying amount of change in the last six months. She was hospitalized for a long period of time for health complications upon her long standing health complications. Her father passed away and she navigated family tensions before she finally laid his ashes to rest during Hurricane Sandy. She moved out of the house she raised her family in to a small home within walking distance of campus.

She ended her email saying she was having a dinner for her neighbors that Wednesday and that I was invited.

This professor was one of the early ones to make my imagination come alive. She was a gift in one of those mundane, routine courses all English majors were required to take: English 201 "What is Literature?" I don't remember what we came up with as a definition. I think she took the Suzanne Lori-Parks approach, thinking about "The Great Tradition" and the "Next Great Thing". Or something like that. In the tight room on the third floor of Sackett Building, with the wide window ledges that opened up to the tops of the elm trees, she drew outlines and timelines on the chalkboard in careful, elegant cursive. She had us reading "The Inferno" and translations of "The Bacchae" and gave extra credit for going to see live theatre. I gave a presentation on film adaptations for my final project, explaining through Jane Austen adaptations what "faithful translation" meant when taking literature to the screen (for the record, I lauded "Sense and Sensibility" by Ang Lee and decried the Joe Wright "Pride and Prejudice" as a fraud). A few times, she made us circle our chairs and sat outside the circle while we ran our own discussion. I met two of my favorite English Major friends in that course but probably wouldn't have ever learned to love them as much as I did without those discussions and papers.

When I walked as marshall for the English department at graduation, she walked with me. Kept me from killing anyone with that stupid banner.

Her new house was a charming one. She had invited all the neighbors she had met so far on her street and many had come, bringing food to contribute to the meal. She offerred me wine and then said in a panicked voice, "You are 21, aren't you?" When I was first in her class, I wasn't 19. Yes, I am of age.

I couldn't stay long and I hugged her as I left. "You are doing okay?" she asked. She had remembered a short conversation we had as we waited to walk for graduation over a year ago about my parents, my unwieldy banner sitting against a wall, and voices echoing around us in the high cement walls of the Bryce Jordan Center. I said that I was in a good place. "You sound skeptical" she replied. And I started crying. It had nothing to do with parents but with Other Things. She hugged me, saying that she understood completely. And please, would I come to her next dinner in a month? I promised I would.

I felt ridiculous crying in her dining room about something so passing in my own life when her own had been turned upside down this year. But that was the kind of grace this professor has, as a teacher and now as a friend.


Anonymous said...

Sweet post.

Kaitlin Sickle said...

"A sort of "thanksgiving" by way of memory... fellow pilgrims."

I love this idea. Absolutely.

dolce vita said...

I like this one the most.