I recently used the phrase, “Your intellectual grandfather” when I casually referenced one of my undergraduate professors to my junior English class one day. While the comment was off the cuff, I’ve given it some thought since. I like the idea that the passage of instruction has a generational quality to it. I’m aware that each day I stand before my own students, the voices, ideas and inspiration of certain key professors and teachers are echoing in my mind. When I sat in their classes, I don’t think I could possibly have known how much I would carry their influence throughout life.
I remember my creative writing professor who entered the classroom each day like a firecracker of energy. Her toughness pushed me to produce nothing less than my best, all the while making me believe I was capable of more. She called me a “kickass writer”, even when she believed it more than I did. I remember sitting in her busy, tiny office discussing an idea, mulling over some character, or picking apart some plot flaw. She took an ambitionless freshman with the confidence of a mole-rat and made me believe I had something to offer.
I remember my vaguely David Tennant-looking medieval literature professor, who inadvertently had several students theorizing that he was Dr. Who. Reading the Canterbury Tales in Middle English conjured some sort of magic in the classroom, and Geoffrey Chaucer became the gateway drug to Old English, Beowulf and several other classes with him. In each class, he pushed us to think more deeply than I had ever imagined possible, manipulating and guiding the class discussions, so that somehow the students did nearly all the talking, but he somehow magically had crafted a brilliant lecture by the end.
I remember my grad school playwriting professor, who, as we sat around a wooden table in a barn annex overlooking the Vermont mountains, managed to repair the broken writer in me. In the four years since my brother had died, I had been unable to write. My inner critic dominated any voice that tried to put words on the page, and my ideas got drowned in numbness and years of stamped-down grief. The week of the anniversary of my brother’s death, he assigned us to write 25 pages of stream of consciousness. He didn’t freak out when I broke down in tears as I told him how terrified I was to be alone with my thoughts for 25 pages. Instead he told me I was safe, and that everyone in the room was carrying darkness with them. He was right. I wrote 25 pages of raw, previously unexpressed and festered thoughts. Then I wrote a play. Then I wrote a novel. Then I was accepted to an MFA program and quit my job to teach part time and write. I am just on the beginning of this journey, but I owe so much to the kindness and encouragement of this man.
These, and many more, are the intellectual grandparents of my ‘children’. Times one student or another has given me an unassigned short story to proof, told me about spotting Anglo-Saxon influences in The Hobbit, or asked me to look through the English department classes with her in search of prospective college programs, a part of me wishes that my old professors could see how their legacy is continuing on through the generations.