Thursday, August 9, 2012

Three Strange Men

They say that you change your major three times before graduating college.  My freshman year, I declared myself an English Literature major. Just like that. It may have been wrong for the economy, but soul thrived there, buried in words and theories. My professors? Yeah, they were the bomb diggity.
First there was Dr. Miller, a man who was too brilliant to be anything but cynical.  Oh, I could sit all day and listen to him lecture for hours on the hidden meanings in words, the true darkness in marriage, the lie that is romance, and the depravity of human nature.  I don’t know why, but I felt empowered by it, by soaking in all of his knowledge. It sounds depressing on paper, but it wasn't.  Dr. Miller was an intellectual force of nature. He ended every Friday lecture with, “Have a great weekend. Don’t do anything stupid.” I can still hear him say it, perfectly enunciated, full of bottled energy and exasperation. “Don’t do anything stupid.” I wonder if he still says it.
Then I met Dr. Randle, the devil’s advocate who refused to let us sit silently.  There were only seven of us in that class, so we HAD to talk. He forced you to, sitting back, arms crossed, chin tilted, asking, "Why? Why? Why?" You had to have a reason, prove it from the text. It was all right there, in the text; you just had to look for it. We sat squeezed around one giant table in a tiny room, close enough that Randle could smack us if he wanted to, and he would have, trust me.  He was infamous, a loose cannon,  but no one could teach Eliot’s The Wasteland like he could.  It remains one of my favorites, mostly because of Randle's teaching. That and it's bloody brilliant. Give it a read. You won't regret it.
I spelt his name wrong once, on a paper: R-A-N-D-A-L-L. He left a note “This isn’t me.” Mortifying, I tell you.
Still, he didn’t seem to hate me, in fact, he might have liked me ("Of course, he likes you," one of his favorite students told me later, "he only hates idiots. You're not an idiot").
After one class, he announced we would be reading Pretty by Stevie Smith, "And Pete," he says, being the only professor who called me by my nickname, "seems to have a good grasp on it, so she's going to teach it."
I was shocked.  I had analyzed the poem in a paper a month ago, and giving its introductory lecture was one of the proudest and most terrifying moments of my academic career.   My hands shook the entire time, and I paused at least twice, to apologize and ask if I was doing all right. He nodded and smiled, "You're doing just fine."
I miss lectures and discussions by Dr. Randle. I really do. He will always be my favorite, he with the threats of marker tossing and the endless "Why."
Lastly, there was Dr. Potts, my Senior Seminar professor obsessed with Faulkner.  He was the kind of man who should have worn a white linen suit, smoked fine Cuban cigars, and sipped mint juleps on the porch at sunset, a true Southern gentleman.  He had the facial hair for it, among other things.  Despite all of his dignity, we called him “Pottsy” behind his back.
Above all else, one thing Pottsy said stuck with me: “Unless you are tormented—unless you are depressed, suicidal, or addicted to sex, drugs, and alcohol—you will never be great.  Genius is tormented.  You all will never be great unless you are miserable.”
 I've never decided if I agree. Still, there's Sylvia Plath . . .
The night our final paper was due in his class, there was a tornado warning, and every student in the library, including me, was herded into the basement.   One of my classmates, quiet fellow with dark hair and darker eyes, ended up next to me. “Well, hello, Sarah Wimberly,” he said with his lopsided smile, leaning casually against a bookcase, “How’s your paper?”
“Ok, I guess. Working on it. How’s yours?” 
“I think I’m ok, putting the final edits on mine.”
“Really? Final edits?”
“Yeah. Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
“Erm . . . uh . . . no . . . I *cough* I just started.”
His eyes widened.  “Seriously?”
I blushed. “Yeah, I’m kind of a procrastinator.”
He laughed. Hard. “My god, Sarah, you’ve got balls!”
For some reason, I am incredibly proud of that “compliment.”
Balls. I have them.
Apparently, everyone else had been perfecting their final paper for over a month. I'd been working on notes and outlines for weeks, but writing? I scrambled through that sucker in three hours. A security guard had to let me into the English building so I could slip my paper under Pottsy’s door by midnight.   The last paper of my college career.
Weeks later, I caught Pottsy walking through the hallways. “Dr. Potts, sir, I was wondering if you had finished the papers?  I just wanted to know my grade—I’m planning to graduate this semester and wanted to make sure . . .”
“Ah, well, you’ll know the grades when it’s posted, but, since you’re graduating . . .” and he waved for me to follow him down the hall.
He unlocked his office door and stepped inside. English professors have such delightful offices--rich, dignified furniture stuffed into cramped spaces with walls covered in books, old books, new books, every size and every type, ranging in every manner of fiction, history, and critique.  I adore these little corners that smell of libraries and knowledge. 
Pottsy emerged with my paper.  He skimmed the pages briefly, as if trying to remember it, his brow furrowed, cocked his head slightly. “You didn’t . . . uh . . . happen to read any of your classmates’ papers, did you?”
“No sir.”
“Well, um . . . I ask because you got it, the theory bit. You really did. Your classmates . . . Well, you have an A, Sarah. Good work.”
“Thank you, sir!” I was flabbergasted.  I still am.
To my knowledge, I don’t think my professors cared a wit for any of their young padawans. We were all idiots, really, not old enough to know anything but young enough to believe we knew it all. I did not love my professors because I felt loved.  I loved them because they were brilliant, they challenged me, they bestowed knowledge, and, in a very small way, I loved them because I hoped that they saw something worthwhile in me 
One professor, a raving feminist, once saw me in the office and said, “Sarah Wimberly! We were just talking about you! Wondering where you were!”
 I never learned if this was a good thing or a bad thing, but I was touched that she knew my name. I really wasn't anything special. I didn't join the literature clubs, and I wasn't brighter, louder, or more talented. I just loved books. I loved English. I loved my major.
You never know about people, who you will remember, who will remember you, who you will affect and who might affect you.  I don’t think any of my professors remember my name or my papers. 
But I remember them.

Who’s changed you? What teachers or leaders left an imprint on your life?


  1. I loved reading about your professors. Sounds like your got some good ones! I've always loved profs who walk a little on the wild side the best...maybe I should write about some of them one of these days.
    I'm starting to miss them, really, because this is the first August in four years that I'm not going back to school.

    Through a strange series of events, I ended up being required to take a class on the history of sports during my final semester. I have utterly no interest in sports, and I expected to detest the class and the research projects involved. Yet my professor was so good that the class was my favorite for the semester. If I was a prof, that's the kind I'd want to be--someone who can make even the most distasteful of subjects interesting to anyone. I've had really good and really bad professors, but he amazed me.

  2. Love this, Sarah! You're so lucky to have 3 professors who left such an impact on your life. Amazing. They all sound like such brilliant men who take pride in their knowledge and ability to teach, not stand in front of a class and lecture for an hour and then expect you to regurgitate that to a piece of paper. I had one teacher like that who I fell in love with (not literally because well he was gay but I seriously loved him) who made me think and challenged me and pushed me. I took every class I could from him and loved every moment. There are too many tenured professors who just sit around and get paid. Not this man. And it doesn't sound like yours either.


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