In my very first college English lit class, the teacher asked us to write a poem on sexuality, and I wrote a limerick about a turtle. It was the only thing I could think of that rhymed with fertile. Of course I missed the obvious rhyme, to angina, which all the other loose-limbed poems used with abandon. I was shocked—there was no respect for meter at all.
The professor fiddled with her chopstick-stuffed bun as she read aloud the other students’ work to general noises of appreciation. Then came mine. There was stunned silence. One guy said it must be sarcastic before he looked at me and saw my big hair, thick eyeshadow, and blushing face.
When the Blue Book of classes arrived on the farm in Nebraska that previous summer, I spent days poring over the English department’s offerings. Here, at the Esteemed Eastern College, I would finally be in a place where real books were savored and discussed. Unlike in my high school English classes, which focused mostly upon the rules of grammar and basic sentence structure, I would be among my people. There was the literature of the Greeks and Shakespeare and the Harlem Renaissance (not that I knew what that was). Unabashed love of the written word burst forth from every page of offerings.
Smacked with the reality of September, however, I was profoundly humiliated. I didn’t belong; I wanted to go home. I didn’t have the airfare, though, and the 1970s orange suburban that carried me the 1,653 miles to college didn’t likely have another trip in it. I was stuck until Christmas.
A new friend from my floor suggested I transfer to her English section: Love and Its Representations in Literature. My suite-mate snickered from behind the Iliad.
I went. What a syllabus! We read everything from the original fairytales to Jane Austen to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Zora Neale Hurston. Twenty or so books with love as a theme created a magical survey combination. Maybe it wasn’t a deeply serious topic for the supposed level of institution at which we were studying, but for the handful of students who were lucky enough to land in that room, it was a wonderful celebration of the beauty of great books.
There was no snobbery, no one-upsmanship that I’ve come to expect in so many literature and creative writing classes. When I flunked my first paper because I had no idea how to write one, the professor spent hours teaching me. She shut down snide comments and eliminated mockery. This class was about unearthing a special truth about love as revealed in literature.
The rest of my life was a minefield of embarrassment. I didn’t know how to cut a bagel or pronounce Italian or that a semi-formal cocktail party at the Master’s house meant a simple black dress. I was working my tail off in my other classes to keep afloat and shelving books in the dark basement of the law school to afford tuition. But that class anchored me. As long as I could read Their Eyes Were Watching God as a homework assignment, I could get through the rest.
My level of sophistication has no doubt risen. I have a special bagel-cutter in my kitchen, no hair spray in my bathroom cabinet. I mostly hold my own now in conversations about the difficult texts, the prize-winners, the critically-acclaimed novels. I read of war’s dark evils, of looping, disturbed minds. I can appreciate the lyrical beauty of digging into such treasures. Every February, however, I make a point of putting down whatever I’m in the midst of and find a way to read about love. For in reading an exquisite story with love as its centerpiece I’m able to reconnect to the wondrousness of literature itself.
I know where that professor is. As fate would have it, she teaches at the same university as my husband. My babysitter was once her dogwalker. I could send an email or even call her office to tell her of the importance of Love and Its Representations in Literature. I wouldn’t have stayed at college without her. At Christmas break, I would have gone back to Nebraska to a different life and perhaps that life would be just as rich, I don’t know. What I do know is that I never would have written another word.
I have waited, however, for a chance meeting. I want to tell her to her face so that she can see mine and know the sincerity behind my words, of how vital it is to value beautiful words over feigned sophistication. I will no doubt cry and make a fool of myself. It won’t be the first time.