June 17, 2018

my english professor's checkbook

Dr. Sylvia Little's didactic mastery drew us all to English class, with perfect attendance.  I was afraid to nap after my bleary-eyed early-morning math course for fear I would miss it.  Gears ground and minds opened.  Sometimes she just sat on her stool at the front of the room and read to us from our assigned novels.  All that she brought to life when she was reading taught us more than any lecture about idioms and protagonists and salient features could have imparted.  Much of it was local literature ... Sharyn McCrumb, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Fannie Flagg.

We did a fair amount of responsive writing to movies like Places in the Heart and The Color Purple, holed up in A/V library carrels with a checked-out VHS tape and well-loved headphones.  

Our writing was her other passion.  She made us want to give it to her, and it was her bread and meat, watching her students grow and occasionally experience a light bulb moment.

She's a dignified Southern lady.  She's in her eighties and is still spreading her contagious passion for literature.

I only had the privilege of studying under her for one semester, and at the end of that semester, she summoned me to her office for tea and a chat.  There really was a tea tray, a proper one, parked neatly in front of towering stacks of books in front of shelves of books, peppered with folders and photos of a daughter.  We talked for two hours.  I was delighted but baffled.  How did she give this kind of lengthy, individual attention to each of her students?  She was at the time one of my minor heroes and objects of fascination, so I drank it all in like sweet tea.

I shared a concern.  I had recently started having writing ideas in my car while driving the two-hour rural trip home each weekend, only to lose them.  I couldn't pull over and write them down because I was working three part-time jobs and sometimes barely made it to work on time back in my hometown.  I certainly couldn't scratch them out on a napkin while driving.  One goes into a trance while driving roads that long and boring, and the ideas came while I was in that state of mind.  I couldn't recover them while making junior bacon cheeseburgers a few hours later.  They were lost.

She listened closely, with her head slightly tilted and a far-away look.  And as we talked, her motions as casual as reaching for a tissue or jotting down a quick note, she opened a desk drawer and produced a checkbook, and begin writing out a check.  I put it down to eccentricity, and as she continued what could only have been paying a bill she had just remembered, she told me that she was friends with Pat Conroy and several other notable writers.  She elaborated on those connections and her voice carried the heavy implication that I in turn had connections through her.  She was saying this to a girl who was seventeen years old and had only ever written some papers in her class, so I set my cup down and nodded politely and considered the depths of that eccentricity as I listened.

Our class had just read The Prince of Tides.

She tore the check out neatly, then turned and fixed her gaze on me in a way that transformed that second into a Moment.  "This is not a gift, because I am not allowed to give gifts to students.  Do you understand?"  I nodded.  Captivated.  "This is an investment.  A personal one.  I am asking you to use this to buy a small tape recorder for your car.  It should pay for some batteries, too.  This way, you can record those ideas when they come.  Never stop writing, Lille.  I ask only one thing in return:  Promise me you'll dedicate the first book to me."

My mother taught me to reflexively reject gifts.  Well, more sort of damaged me into it, an indirect lesson that nevertheless has always permeated how I handle receiving them.  There was nothing in my personal history that had prepared me for accepting an investment.  But in that Moment, all I felt was bewilderment at her thinking I merited this, and awe, and I reached out and accepted the check.  It wasn't a gift, so I didn't say, "Thank you."  It was an investment.  I looked her in the eye, an eye that saw a writer, and said, "I promise."

She hugged me.  I smelled like her perfume for the rest of the day.

I bought the microcassette recorder over Christmas break, and some miniature blank tapes for it, and some batteries.  Everything I needed.  And I don't think I used it to capture a single idea.  Ever.  Even with it faithfully sitting on the seat in the car beside me.  At that point I had just become obsessed with Handel's Messiah and the small recorder sat next to the full-size cassette player borrowed from my grandmother, which used up those batteries playing my "Messiah Highlights with Vivaldi - Gloria" bargain bin cassette tape.  I was singing.  I wasn't in a trance any more.  The creativity had stopped flowing.  I didn't have a Dr. Little in front of me each day to keep those gates open.

And that's what that little blurb up there on the right is about.  I've written her to tell her about this blog, but I don't know if she's received the messages because I haven't heard from her.  I want her to know that even though this is the closest I will ever come to writing a book, even though I'm twenty years late, to the extent I have been able, I have kept that promise.  I'm trying to give a good return on her investment.

Press the tiny "FWD" button ....

Last night, we were digging through a box that P.J. asked me to stick in the back of my son's closet eleven years ago, because we were moving in and he was only four and wouldn't protest and we had run out of space elsewhere.  It was an "I'll get to that stuff at some point" box with unknown contents.  A decade went by and I always had to shove the box out of the way when putting sheets and board games and toys on that shelf in his closet.

Then yesterday, we were moved by the Holy Spirit of Eschewing Clutter and decided to do a clean-out, mainly of the basement and our walk-in closet, which had become more of a squeeze-in closet.  It was almost bedtime when I remembered that box and thought, "I should go get that.  We can add some stuff to the Goodwill pile."  I brought it downstairs and set it in the kitchen.

Ten years had transformed it into a box mostly full of junk.  A coaxial cable coupler, two elderly VOIP boxes, old phones, various wires and objects that have long been surpassed technologically.  "Toss the lot," we both said, and I was about to tip it into the garbage can, since we needed the empty box itself, when something caught my eye and I fished it out of the bottom.

It was the recorder.  I thought I had lost it over the course of all the moves during my twenties.  But I also knew that I'd never been able to bring myself to discard it, and last night, I held it in both hands, and thought about this blog, and tears welled up.  I regarded it with a mixture of knowing how silly it would be to hang on to an object I will never use and a desire to consider it a holy relic and enshrine it.

Being scratched up and beat all to hell only makes it
more meaningful, because I've kept it and kept it.

I asked P.J., "Am I a writer?  I've only touched a few people with my words.  Is there a threshold?  How do you know when you're actually a writer?"  She said in a soft voice, "Only you can answer that, but I think you know the answer, love."

Thank you, Sylvia, for the preserved memory of seeing an office stacked with loved books, for the tears I know you shed when Conroy died, and for investing in the likes of a floundering seventeen-year-old girl whose mind and future you keenly pierced.  Thank you for watering the seeds.

I've kept the recorder.  I wish I'd kept that canceled check and framed it.  And I hope, oh I hope, that I've kept my promise.

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