The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How I Got Here

A lot of people ask me, “how did you get this way?”

“What way?” I ask.

“You know…the way you are. Loud. Overbearing. Dramatic.” They always seem annoyed at this point.

“I’m not sure,” I say, honestly. “I think I was born that way.”

“Well, how did you become interested in all this crap? This Old English crap? The whole professor gig? Why aren’t you a secretary or an accountant or a window-washer or something?”

The answer to that question is complicated. The truth is, I wound up doing what I do because of the intervention of several fine, dedicated people with whom I was lucky enough to come into contact. I shall now tell you about some of them. If you are ever fortunate enough to encounter these people, don’t let them leave without imparting some of their wisdom on you.

Mr. Dennis Donahue, 12th Grade Honors English: The man who introduced me to Anglo-Saxon and Beowulf for the first time! I can still remember seeing the Anglo-Saxon language filmstrip (“beep”) and being fascinated with all those strange letters and symbols. When I heard it read aloud for the first time, I clearly recall thinking: “I want to know everything about this. Everything.” And a career (fixation?) was born.

Mr. Donahue was the only inspirational figure in high school, so we move on now to college, where I really came unglued.

Dr. Ann Baines Coiro, Shakespeare Seminar: Oh, how I wanted to be Dr. Coiro when I grew up! She was tall, thin, elegant, sophisticated, and soft-spoken. She wore long flowing dresses. She was charming and eloquent. She had a beautiful lecture voice which kind of lulled me into a trance. Once, in a fit of bravery, I went to her office hours and told her; “I want to be just like you!” She turned scarlet and looked flustered and couldn’t understand why. I’m sad to report that the only part of Dr. Coiro I was able to transfer to my own professorhood is the being tall part.

Dr. John “Mickey” McClure, Bible As Literature: Mickey was an extremely popular professor who was kind enough to bend the rules for me in order to get me in to his Bible As Literature class. The class was a fascinating mix of fundamentalist Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and one lapsed Catholic (me) who just needed credits in the Religious Studies department. Mickey managed to keep everyone in line without a holy war breaking out, even if he did wear strange things like a plaid flannel shirt with a paisley tie. When I found out that Mickey actually lived near my house, I drove there to see what kind of digs he had. Sadly, it turned out that he lived in a real rat-hole of an apartment in urban New Jersey. I sincerely hope he’s moved.

Dr. Whitney Bolton, Linguistics: Dr. Bolton is actually the Bolton of the famous Wrenn-Bolton edition of Beowulf, so he was like a minor celebrity to me when I took his class. He was tall, lanky, eccentric, and slightly obsessed with his cat, Bugsy. The textbook for the class (A Living Language – I recommend it to language geeks) was actually one that Bolton himself wrote, and I usually abhor this practice. However, it was really convenient to have him right there to explain things that confused you. He further solidified my love of linguistics and all things Anglo-Saxon, and was the only person who could ever properly explain The Great Vowel Shift to me. He was kind enough to write me a recommendation to grad school.

Dr. Terry Holt, Science Fiction: Dr. Holt was enormously popular because he was young, brilliant, and handsome. He was able to handle a class of 400 insane Sci-Fi fans with aplomb and grace. He also taught Creative Writing, and I jumped through hoops to get into one of his classes, but sadly, even my methods were ineffective. The one clear thing I remember from Science Fiction class was Dr. Holt saying: “Star Trek is Mister Rogers’ Universe.” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that, but it sure sounds cool. A while back, I tried to find out whatever happened to Dr. Holt, and discovered that apparently he had freaked out, quit teaching, and joined the Navy. I can only assume he was having a mid-life crisis.

Dr. Rick Barr, Dramatic Literature: So thrilled with Dr. Barr was I that I took both halves of his two-term course, thus having him as a professor for a whole academic year. I admired him because he didn’t care what he looked like and often showed up for our (morning) class looking like he had slept in his clothes. He also threw chalk at inattentive students. I can clearly remember him saying on the first day of class: “August Strindberg is everybody’s nightmare blind date.” He never explained it further, but I still have that written in my notebook.

Dr. Julian Monihan, Modern Novel: Oh, there are just no words to say how much I adored this man. He was about sixty, and very “old school” – he called his female students “Miss So-and-so”, and was so damn charming about it that nobody minded. I had his class during my very last semester in college, and applying to grad schools was making me even more insane than usual. One day after class, I collapsed in tears at my desk, and Dr. Monihan patted me on the shoulder reassuringly. “Miss BeowulfGirl,” he said, gently, “just ask yourself…will it matter a thousand years from now?” I said that it probably wouldn’t. He smiled and gave me a Junior Mint and sent me on my way.

Dr. Barry Qualls, Victorian Novel: Dr. Qualls was a southern gentleman who was also the Chair of the English department, which meant I absolutely had to have him on my side. He is the only professor, to date, to ever make me actually finish Bleak House and write a paper on it. I owe Dr. Qualls a lot because he worked tirelessly with me on my Statement of Purpose for my grad school applications, and when I was accepted, he was the first one I called.

Dr. Susan Cachel, Athropology: Yes! A science professor sneaks in! I was hesitant to take Anthropology, but Dr. Cachel made it so interesting and accessible that I fell in love with it. If I hadn’t discovered it so late in my academic career, I might have minored in it. I often watch the National Geographic Channel and think of her.

Dr. Allen Josephson, Abnormal Psychology: I took his class, naturally, so that I might diagnose myself and my friends. He looked a lot like Freddy Mercury, and on the very first day of class after handing out the syllabus he announced loudly: “According to my permanent record at this university, I have an addiction problem because I smoke. And I’m pissed off about it!” A few years ago, I actually saw Dr. Josephson on television, being interviewed about Multiple Personality Disorder. I hope he has given up smoking.

Dr. Eric Krebs, Theatre Appreciation: Dr. Krebs was a jolly fat man who, at the time, co-managed the Harold Clurman Theatre in New York. We had a field trip there, where I actually met Christopher Plummer in the lobby. While shaking Plummer’s hand, I completely forgot every single thing I ever knew about the man, even though he’s one of my favorite actors. Dr. Krebs tried to help by saying; “BeowulfGirl was just telling me how much she liked your Iago.” Plummer, charmingly, said something like; “Really?” And all I could do was stare. It was a week before I could face Krebs again.

Dr. Mary Schmidt, Intermediate Algebra: The whole reason I had to take Intermediate Algebra was because I didn’t take enough math in high school. Because of this, the entire class was filled with people just like me—basically smart people who had a lot of higher math anxiety and got the hell out as soon as they could in high school. Knowing this, Dr. Schmidt was extremely kind and explained everything as if she were talking to a room of five year olds. Since the first half of the class was basic algebra review, I managed an “A” on the mid-term. Unfortunately, after that we got into (shudder) polynomials and I failed the final. Fortunately, this averaged out to a “C+” for the course, and I was able to leave math behind forever. I still think of Dr. Schmidt fondly when balancing my checkbook.

I’m sure there are some that I’m forgetting, but these are just a few of the people who helped shape my life and career. I keep track of them, and one day hope to be able to pay back what they’ve done for me.

I think I turned out pretty well after all!

Next time: Oh, who the hell knows. Suggestions welcome.