Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Where I Went, Part One

I went to Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.  At Susquehanna, more than professors were teachers.  I learned just as much outside of class as I did sitting in a classroom in Bogar, Steele, or Fisher Halls.  I was still pretty immature, all four years I was there, but I think overall, I did all right.  Wore my Sassy Pants way too much and my Humble Hoodie way too little, and yet, I was super-insecure.  When I should have exercised wisdom, I defaulted to smart-assery so as not to give myself away as a dullard... wisdom's one of those things that's earned usually, though, and usually earned by doing and saying a bunch of stupid stuff and then next time a similar situation presents itself, you make a different choice.  As with High School Me, I'm not sure if I met College Me, I'd like myself any better, but maybe this is just one of those weeks where my lowlight reel features more prominently than my highlight reel.  There were highlights at Susquehanna, things I'm really proud of, but when I'd not do or say the right thing or act with grace, those are the things I wish I could go back and fix.  They're the things that haunt me when the house is too quiet and I'm left to just think.

But like I said, it was a good experience, overall!  I learned from so many people!  I still have dreams where I'm back at Susquehanna University as a student, and they're so real, I can smell the gingko berries underfoot (not a pleasant smell!).  When I wake up and realize it's over a decade since I graduated, and I'm never going back there as a student, I've been known to weep bitterly.  I really did love it there.

I didn't go to Susquehanna planning on being a Writing major.  They didn't even have Creative Writing as a major when I was an incoming freshman.  So I opted to be a Public Relations major, because a book I'd read in high school said that PR was going to be big in the Next Century!  I had one class that first semester in the Communications Department, where the Public Relations emphasis was housed.  It was Public Speaking with a woman named Emily Anderson.  I'm so glad I got to take Public Speaking.  Everybody should.  That class has helped me speak with confidence at readings and in front of large groups of people.  A few years ago, the principal of my high school was in a pinch for a commencement speaker, and two days before graduation, in a Hail Mary moment for her, she called me up and asked me if I'd do it, that the original speaker had taken ill.  Despite having no qualifications to be a Commencement Speaker other than having commenced myself, I said, "sure," and did a pretty darned good speech with an adrenaline rush, but no stage-fright, no mic-fright.  The graduates didn't pay attention to a damn word I said,  but I didn't expect them to.  I heard from a few parents that they liked what I said and I said it well.  And that's Emily Anderson's doing, there.  First semester, Freshman year.  She was quite a character, that Emily Anderson.  She was of that generation that goes to the salon every week to have her hair done.  Even in sturdy high heels, she was less than five feet tall, and yet she commanded the room of us freshmen, who would have rather been anywhere but there from 3 to 4:05 on M-W-F, Fs before a break, especially.  She taught us to have confidence when we spoke.  The thing my friend Ann and I still talk about, when we get talking about Emily Anderson, is the car she drove.  It was a big dark blue Cadillac ElDorSomething.  Huge.  If you wanted to, you could divide that car into three equal parts- a spacious trunk, a spacious passenger compartment, and acres'n'acres of hood.  Each segment of the car was as long as the last.  And that tiny little Professor Anderson would come driving down the main driveway of the college, and go to the parking space that always seemed to be open for her, in the parallel-parking only area in front of the gym and nearest to Bogar Hall, where our class was taught.  Nine times out of ten, Dr. Housley's little red Ford Probe would be in the spot on the very end, the one where he'd just drive in and set the brake.  Somebody's Volvo was invariably in the spot at the front, where you could fudge the parallel parking if you wanted to, and especially just drive straight out after class.  But Professor Anderson always seemed to park in the middle spot, where you HAD to parallel park.  Now, I will circle the block until a pull-up spot opens up in my Jeep, which I think must be shorter from tip to tailpipe than her Caddie, and it definitely sits up higher, for better visibility.  We'd watch in awe as little Professor Anderson would slip her giant Cadillac into that parallel parking spot, slick as a whistle, first try, every try.

I switched my major from Public Relations to Creative Writing when my Writing Seminar professor, Jim Lee, announced one day before Fall Break that first semester, that the English Department had just created it.  Now, I hadn't really set the world on fire in Professor Lee's class.  He gave me a D on my first draft of my first paper.  I went into the Bell Jar, because of that whole immature, insecure thing.  What a bucket of cold water!  Somebody having the audacity to give ME a D on a paper!!!  And say that I wrote wordy, convoluted sentences and emasculated my verbs!  What did that even mean, emasculating verbs? Oh, how I hated Professor Lee!

Except, I didn't hate Professor Lee, and after a phone call home tuned me up, in which my parents told me to grow up and LEARN from the criticism instead of just calling it unfair and wanting to drop the class, I re-read Professor Lee's notes.  I took a deep breath and realized there was no fixing this paper, so I just started it the hell over, careful not to write convoluted sentences, really careful not to emasculate my verbs by taking away their agency and giving it to forms of the verb "to be."  In case you're not an English nerd like I grew up to be, I was addicted to the passive voice: "I was hit by the ball." "He was surprised by the our present."  "The freedoms were taken away by them."  Read those sentences and pity the poor, emasculated verbs.  Now see how it should be done: "The ball hit me."  "Our present surprised him."  "They took away our freedoms."  There's no subject-object entanglements in the second way.  There's no question who did what to whom.  So that was the first way I cleaned up my writing for that paper.  I ended up with either a B+ or an A- in Writing Seminar.  I know I improved even more than my grade showed.  I went on to take two more classes with Professor Lee: Journalism and Intro to Nonfiction.  I learned to be direct, and say what I mean and own my writing.  To "show, don't TELL!!!"  I'm glad I stuck with Mr. Lee, even after that first D, and I'm glad he put up with me for those three classes!

Dr. Karen Mura taught my "Autobiography" class freshman year, and also "Literature and Culture" sophomore year, and "History of the English Language" junior year.  I liked Dr. Mura and all the classes I took with her, but "History of the English Language" is my favorite.  I learned that for me, at least, it isn't enough to know what a word means, but to know where it comes from, its biography.  I also always admired her soft-spoken but rather powerful manner.  I've never been "soft-spoken" nor particularly powerful, and here, Dr. Mura was, all at once.

In Dr. Susan Bowers' "Study of Literature" class, which I took in the spring of my sophomore year, I learned for the first time how being literate is not the same is knowing how to read, and that with the right tools, a whole new world opens up when you read something.  I kept the textbooks from her class and used them not only for my remaining time at Susquehanna, but also those textbooks saved my bacon more than a couple times in graduate school.  I still have those textbooks, and I still reference them periodically.  I got only one semester with Dr. Bowers, but was it ever an influential one!

Dr. Rachana Sachdev was my Shakespeare professor, first semester senior year.  She reminded me in a lot of ways of Ms. Sitler.  Her class was demanding, a lot of work.  But before her class, I'd always treated Shakespeare as something of a deity: you don't mess with Shakespeare!  She taught us that there were no sacred cows, and to get into the text and get messy.  Tear things apart to see how they were put together.  Don't be afraid of going out in search of an answer and coming back with more questions.  This was as revolutionary to me as finding out that it was okay to write in my books!

Dr. Hans Feldmann taught Grammar.  I always thought of him as a teddy bear that could growl.  He looked all cuddly, but if you were sloppy with your work, would he ever let you have it.  But he taught me what a comma splice is, which is something I'd always heard bandied about (probably even in reference to my own writing), and I never knew what it was.  Are you curious?  It's when you put in a comma where it just doesn't belong.  Like this: it's when you put in a comma, where it just doesn't belong.  Once you know what they are, you find them everywhere, comma splices.  They sort of give me a little stroke, each time, too, especially if I see I've unwittingly done it!

Paul Klingensmith.  Mr. Klingensmith.  Before I even was in his class, I adored Mr. Klingensmith.  He looked every bit the English Professor.  Tweed jacket with leather on the elbows, white hair, big glasses, mustache.  He had a quiet demeanor and was unfairly billed as "dry" by some students.  He was quiet, and wasn't at all the flash-and-dazzle type, but you could learn a lot from Mr. Klingensmith if you listened.  Another thing about Mr. Klingensmith was that he smoked a pipe.  Vanilla Cavendish.  I'd follow him around sometimes, when he'd walk around campus, smoking his pipe.  I love the smell of Vanilla Cavendish.  He never let on that he knew I was there, but I'm pretty sure he did, because subtle is one thing I am not, and he was one to play along with any joke, his eyes bright and twinkling- yes, twinkling eyes!  Senior year, when I did my reading, Mr. Klingensmith came to it, as he did to every senior reading.  I sent him a thank-you note for attending, and he sent me back a long letter.  I felt that MY thank-you note was necessary.  That he sent back such a long letter in return was above-and-beyond, in my book!

Dr. Laurence Roth was always kind of an enigma to me.  Everybody called him "Larry," which in my head just didn't fit.  To me, a "Larry" cuts the arms out of his flannel shirts and has a mullet and drinks PBR piss-warm from the can.  Dr. Roth, as I think of him, was none of those things!  He was cool, and hip.  A hipster, I think, thinking about him now.  So maybe "Larry," with a nod and a wink to the guy with the sleeveless flannel shirt.  I don't remember being stellar in Dr. Roth's class, and I regret that.  It was spring semester, junior year.  I think I had the smartassery cranked up to eleven then.  I felt totally outclassed and inferior in Dr. Roth's class, so of course instead of buckling down and working harder, I was just a smartassy jackass in that class.  I wish I'd been better in his class, worked harder. 

Dr. Scott Manning was my Italian professor, and also my "Futures of the Text" professor.  I had a blast in his classes.  In Italian class, he helped us cook an Italian Feast (I was a disaster at the cooking part, but the language part, I did fine in).  In Futures of the Text, I wish that had been a whole semester-long course, instead of just seven weeks.  It was already an interesting subject, but Dr. Manning made it come alive.  I remember he had an e-book.  I think it was a Sony e-Book or some such device.  We all thought it was THECOOLESTTHINGEVER!!! and we all wanted one (they were prohibitively expensive at the time, especially for college kids), and we debated on whether or not e-books would ever take off.  We all said the e-book was a really cool idea, and would revolutionize college kids' lives, just in being able to have all the books you need for a semester in the palm of your hand!!!  But we still all preferred the experience of turning an actual page.  That first e-Book reader fizzled.  And then came the Kindle, and the Kindle App for iPhone, and so on and so on.  I would LOVE to be in Dr. Manning's Futures of the Text now, to find out where he thinks the text will go from here, because in the spring of 2000, what we have in 2012 seemed like it came straight from Star Trek.

Speaking of Star Trek, I cannot think of Star Trek (or Highlander) without thinking of Dr. Anne Collins Smith.  She was a philosophy professor who could make her subject come alive by using science fiction to illustrate philosophical thought, and make sci-fi that much more relevant by teaching her students to find the philosophy in the stories.  For me, she was my Greek professor.  I took Ancient Greek for six semesters, beginning in the fall of my sophomore year, and ending when I graduated.  Greek was my minor.  I didn't have to take it to begin with.  I thought it'd be fun, and the rest of my class thought I was nuts- they were all either philosophy majors or pre-Seminary students who were either required or strongly encouraged to take Greek.  I was there because it sounded like fun. And it WAS fun for me.  I took up Greek out of curiosity and because it sounded like a fun way to fill four credits.  I declared it as my minor and stuck with it because of Dr. Anne Smith.  I hope her students in Texas know how lucky they are to have her!  Professors, teachers, PEOPLE like ACS don't come along all that often!

Dr. Fred Grosse, a physicist, was pretty amazing.  I was in his astronomy class in the fall of my junior year, and it still is in the books as one of my favorite classes ever.  I had to work really hard in his class- it was one of the dreaded sciences, and physics, no less, and I was scared to death of the class and also because I was using Higher Math Skills I hadn't had out of the box since high school, but I worked at it, and this time around, if I needed help, I went straight to Dr. Grosse.  The big thing that struck me with Dr. Grosse was that he showed that you can have science and you can have faith, and they don't have to be mutually exclusive. 

I cannot think of "faith" without thinking of Reverend Raymond "Padre" Shaheen.  He'd been the University Chaplain before, and was the Special Assistant to the President while I was there, and my first semester, Padre was the Acting Chaplain.  I went to Chapel every Sunday when Padre was the Acting Chaplain.  Later on, when I worked in the Office of Public Relations and Publications, I was always running in to Padre, and we got to be friends.  I adored Padre.  He was just an all-around wonderful person.  I always felt as though when I was around Padre, I was in the presence of somebody who was touched by the light of God.  There was no feeling of being judged with Padre, no feeling ashamed of oneself.  There was just love.  Padre is the measure by which I compare any clergy I meet nowadays to.  It's probably against Padre's nature to be one to whom one compares others, but I can't help it.  Padre made a big impression on me and showed me you didn't have to be judgmental to have a strong moral compass; our chief concern around here is to love one another and let Someone Else do the judging.  He was a treasure.  That's all there was to it.  Padre Shaheen was a treasure.

I worked for three years in the Office of Public Relations and Publications.  I had my schedule set up so I worked every day.  I was a gopher, a johnny-on-the-spot. My people at the "PR Office" were just like my family.  I loved them all- Betsy, Karen, Gwen, Mike, Betse, Jenn, and MaryAnn and Brenda.  Betsy was very classy, and I knew that in order to work in her office, I'd need to step up my game.  Gwen was the Publications Manager, and I learned a lot from her, by osmosis, about graphic design.  Mike was the Sports Information Director, so I learned a lot about university sports from him, and also that coffee is rocket fuel, not to leave his file cabinet drawers in his office open and then wander off to answer the phone for Betsy, and if I wanted him to see a message, leave it in his chair.  IN his chair.  He's the only boss of mine for which that's ever worked.  Mike was ENERGETIC!!! and if you were going to work in his office, you had to be, too.  Best thing for a cloudy-headed afternoon was going in to work at the PR office. If we could all work in the same place again, I'd join up in a heartbeat.  Karen was my direct supervisor, and later Brenda.  From working in the PR Office, I learned important phone skills, and how to quickly and efficiently stuff and seal envelopes, and how to sweet-talk a surly Print Shop into jumping our Football Release to the front of the production line, and how to make double-sided copies, and how to fix a copy machine that's swallowed a slice of paper and gotten sick on it, and how to make a good, clean copy of a newspaper clipping.  I learned a lot more while working there.  I loved every minute of it.  The PR Office people were my Family at Susquehanna!

Senior year, Tom Bailey was my mentor for the second half of the year.  He really got me to hunker down and write a whole entire novel for my Senior Thesis.  Many have come along after me and written better Senior Thesis Novels, no doubt, but I guess I was the first.  Two-hundred fifty pages that I'd still be proud of today.  Tom encouraged me to pause in moments of my stories and develop some style instead of just going about the "caveman approach" to story-telling, where it's "and then this happened, and then this was next, and then..."  I am very proud of my work that I did with Tom, and yet I feel like I could have and should have done more, done better.  I can look back and point out spots in that semester when I phoned it in or defaulted to smartass instead of buckling down and doing Better.  I wish I could have a do-over.  The kids in the Creative Writing department at SU now are lucky to have Tom Bailey there.  He has this way of motivating you, of making you feel good about the work you've done, but kind of nudging you to do even better, to do even more, to be your best.  Even going on thirteen years after that semester, I still choose books to read with a thought to "what would Tom say about this book?"  I try to read my own work and criticize it the way he would.  I don't settle for the "loose, baggy monster" that's first to roll out. 

Dr. Gary Fincke was my advisor from the time I switched majors until I graduated, and he was also my independent study mentor the first semester of my senior year.  Like with Tom, Dr. Fincke (even though he signs off on all his emails to me as 'Gary,' I just can't call him by his first name- he'll always be Dr. Fincke!), he was very influential to me, and both of them deserve their own posts, or their own books of how they helped me be Better.  Even though it was Jim Lee who gets a lot of credit for making me clean up my writing before I even got to Dr. Fincke, it was Dr. Fincke who taught me to take criticism gracefully.  Also, not to fear revising.  I got really good at it.  I will never forget the time I was in his Advanced Fiction class, and I wrote this steaming piece of shit historical fiction for my story to be workshopped.  He'd always meet with you first, so you could clean up your story to present it for workshopping.  I went in for my meeting, and Dr. Fincke was sitting there in his desk chair, his one ankle resting on his other knee, with my story resting on his sneaker.  His hands were folded, and he had that look on his face that told me I should just save us both some time and snatch that story up off his sneaker and scamper off and start again, but he motioned for me to sit down.

"Well, what do you think of your story?" he said.  I could feel the uncomfortable 'I'm so wrong' flush filling up my face and neck.

"Um, I think it's a steaming pile of shit, and I will write something new and better and have it on your desk first thing Monday morning?" I said.  It was Friday afternoon.

"Email it to me when you get it done," he said.  "I'll meet with you Monday morning."


He tossed the story right in the garbage can.  Thank you, Dr. Fincke!  Then he started laughing.

"What possessed you to write that, anyway?" he said.

"I don't know," I said.  "I had nothing, and was watching the History Channel, and it seemed like it was better to turn in something than to come here saying I've got writer's block.  Shoulda gone for a walk instead, I think."

"Well... Genre Fiction is tough.  It's not what we're into here."

"I know.  I KNOW!  I won't do that again.  I'll stay away from the History Channel for story ideas."

Dr. Fincke and I had worked together enough that I knew he meant it when he said "no Genre Fiction," and he knew that if he told me to email him my story when I finished it, which was code for get it done ASAP, there'd be something in his inbox from me before the end of the weekend.  I didn't leave his office feeling awful, because he'd long ago gotten it through my head that criticism isn't to be taken personally.  I felt in kind of a panic, because I didn't want to wait until Sunday night to have something to turn in.  And it was Friday night.

I was at dinner with my friends Ann and Karen P. when the idea hit me like a ketchup bottle to the back of the head.  I rushed out of the caf.  Ann and Karen P. understood that when an idea hit me, I was crap for conversation after that, and we'd see each other at brunch the next morning anyway.  I got back to my room, and wrote well past midnight.  I read it over and sent it to Dr. Fincke before I went to bed.  It was a fifteen-page story about a county fair.

"Wow," Dr. Fincke said at our meeting Monday morning.  "I didn't believe it when I checked my email Saturday morning.  You are prolific."

I wasn't entirely sure if Dr. Fincke meant that in a good way or if he were just being tactful.  But he went on to say that I was a "fearless reviser," and that "with a little polishing, this story'll be a knock-out."

What-whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?  Now, Dr. Fincke was no ogre, but you'd never get a whole A from him, and while his criticism could be harsh but fair, a compliment from Dr. Fincke wasn't just handed out like candy.  If he said something like "with a little polishing, this story'll be a knock-out," it meant he truly believed that if you did your work and tightened and tweaked, it'd be something.  He'd wouldn't tell you what you wanted to hear and wouldn't pass along something that wasn't up to spec, just to avoid hurting feelings.

It took all I had in me not to jump out of my chair and clap my hands.

"ThankyouDr.Fincke!" I said.  Dr. Fincke nodded and handed me my story, full of his ink marks and suggestions, so I could get it turned around and copied to hand out in workshop the next day.  We both knew that for me, a revision like that was a piece of cake.

"Relax a little!" he said, as I picked up my backpack to head home to get to work.

"Ha!  Have you met me?"

"Right," he said.

I was fortunate enough to get to be in Dr. Fincke's workshops all four of my last semesters at Susquehanna.  I was lucky to get to be one of his advisees.  I'm really glad that in my time at SU, I got to know Dr. Fincke both as a teacher and as a person.  Besides my PR Office family, when I think back to SU, the ones who really feel like family to me are Dr. Fincke, Tom Bailey, Anne Collins Smith, and Padre Shaheen.  It's things the four of them said to me while I was at Susquehanna that have gotten me over rough patches and through some dark moments. 

It hurt a lot to graduate and have to leave Susquehanna.  Those four years were ideal.  More grown-up than high school, but not really saddled with adult responsibilities yet, at least not the ones that come in Sams Club-size packages.  Couldn't ask for a better place to Grow Up.  But nothing stays green.  We all know this. 

Tomorrow, like it or not, we're goin' to grad school!

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