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Waiting in my pigeonhole that starting day in '58 were the first of many years of even more nervous-making revelations the names of my students for the coming semester. In that precomputer era, we learned the number and names of our students by way of packs of small registration cards. In the Duke of the late 1950s, almost all freshman classes were segregated by gender (that they'd also be allwhite was a long-foregone conclusion); and since my office was on the Woman's College campus, all the names for my two classes of freshman English were female eighteen women in each of two sections.
A quick flip-through showed no names I recognized. I'd already got my free textbooks and had been glad to learn that, in the fall term, we'd be reading prose which might prove especially congenial to my own writing hopes. We'd start with an anthology of essays such brief but worthy chestnuts as Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth" and E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake." Then we'd lead our charges into three unquestioned cornerstones of modern fiction Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
It was considerably too early in the development of the male American psyche for me to consider how unremittingly male those long fictions were there'd be no Edith Wharton or Willa Cather, no further Woolf. But the structure of the freshman course was radically new for Duke. Once weekly a senior member of the department would lecture to all the freshmen, divided into large groups in various big lecture halls on the men's and women's campuses. The lecturer would give an overview of the book under consideration. The point of assigning the mass lectures to senior professors, we were told, was to give the freshmen a view of our stellar performers in full action, thereby tempting them into an eventual English major. Alas, the chairman's faith in the senior members' ability to lecture clearly and arrestingly was misplaced; and within a year more than a few lectures were assigned to promising younger members.
One such senior lecture, on The Great Gatsby, was so appallingly bad that I returned to the trailer foaming mad; and in my furious attempt to drive a picture-hanging nail into the concrete-block wall, I broke the nail. It flew into my left eye with the near force of a bullet. I fell to the floor, covered the eye with my fingers, and slowly drew back a handful of blood. It was late afternoon but I phoned a local eye hospital which urged me to come in before it closed at five. By fourthirty I'd managed to get the Beetle within three blocks of the hospital when a sudden great jet of what seemed black octopus-ink flooded the vision of the wounded eye. But I managed to see a doctor who told me to return home and lie flat on my back for a week. Otherwise the retina might detach and the eye be ruined. My brother came out and helped me with cooking and other chores, and at the end of a week the doctor took another look inside the eye and sent me home for a second week of lying down. After two weeks I was allowed to return to my teaching; and though I experienced unnerving flashes of light for years to come and floating black blood cells the eye slowly repaired itself. And I never allowed myself thereafter to react so realistically to a senior lecturer.
Once past the mass lecture, in any case, we junior instructors would meet with our two sections separately and lead a more detailed discussion of the book (or essays or stories). Then we'd assign a topic related to the book, and each student would write her best effort at a five-hundred-word theme. Then and here was the truly demanding part for the instructor we'd hold private twenty-minute conferences with each student. With the student at our elbow, we'd read, discuss, and grade each theme. There'd be ten themes per term 10 times 36 students, thus 360 themes per term x 20 minutes per theme = 120 hours of conferences per term. And those were hours that could well be fraught with student unhappiness, not to mention tears, if the instructor disliked a particular theme.
Even at best, a twenty-minute conference could feel infinite if the student wasn't already a semi-competent talker about books and the difficulties of prose composition in midcentury American English; and since I was determined (for the sake of my writing) to do all my teaching on a three-day weekly schedule, I could stagger home exhausted after that many hours of conferences. What was most demanding from me in those private meetings was not the total time spent but the new skills required by every such contact. The first required skill was mere attention. As a man with no children of my own, I had to learn quickly how to sit and listen sympathetically, but not without misgivings, to a young person's self-explanations. Then harder still I had to learn to explain my misgivings and, finally, the grade I gave a particular piece of work at the end of the conference.
And in those days of seriously uninflated grading ah, the rigors of outright honesty about the quality of student work! my explanations often had to justify a grade of D or F, even to the hypercourteous students of those days. (In contrast, fifty years later such low grades are all but unheard of in the humanities in most American universities; and the present higher grades almost never reflect a significant improvement in the quality of student intelligence. A teacher awarding such grades now, even when they're entirely justified by the quality of the student's work, is likely to find that his or her classes have grown massively unpopular classes that almost no one will take.)
My third class would generally prove my favorite Representative British Writers, a course required of all English majors. In those days we thought we knew who the major British writers were (I still think many thoughtful readers do, though I'm not sure representative is the word for a series of writers, at least three out of four of whom were geniuses). In my first year we divided the fall semester among Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton. Since our students were mostly sophomores and juniors, they were no longer separated by gender; and the classes were often a good deal larger than the handily small freshman classes. From the start I'd concentrate on drawing my students into group discussions of the poems and plays. And because of my Oxford experience of such talk, I sometimes succeeded, though I'd find almost invariably that a small clutch of the students would simply refuse to commit themselves to speaking aloud, and in the presence of their peers, to the slightest opinion or question. Even five decades later, I usually find that ten percent of a class will simply refuse to engage in class conversation, even when they've been told at the start of the term that my evaluation of their part in class dialogue will constitute, say, a third of their final grade (I always specify that any student who has difficulty with such contribution should discuss the problem privately with me, and we'll make special efforts to ease the difficulty; very few of the silent ten percent ever come to discuss the problem).
Those early freshmen, however, would absorb far the greater portion of my energy. My first class met in another tall, but enormous, room in the same building with my office a nineteenth-century limestone survivor of old Trinity College which had preceded James B. Duke's vast endowment and then named itself after his father, in understandable gratitude and my first set of eighteen girls were banded in the midst of the space in the jittery uncertainty of novice college students (we called them girls or boys then with no sense of insult). My own nerves would have been even more high-strung if I'd thought the students knew it was my own first day of teaching.
From the moment I sat at the desk and looked up with my best imitation of the unsmiling authority that had always impressed me in a teacher, a particular young woman caught my attention. She sat at the head of the row on my right, and she faced me with the same grave selfpossession I was struggling to show her a beautiful clear face, long black hair, and dark eyes. I opened my stack of cards and began to call the roll, asking the girls to tell me which of their given names they preferred and where they'd grown up. In those days I almost never had to ask for help in pronouncing their names then they were at least ninety-nine percent Anglo-Saxon and unlike my present students, they'd almost all grown up in a single town (unless they were "army brats").
The imposing girl responded to the name Anne Tyler with a surprising blush "Anne is pronounced Anne, and I've lived in Raleigh since I was a child." I nodded and decided to wait for our first conference before revealing my own Raleigh connections. As I moved on through the name cards, I couldn't have known what a vivid stroke of beginner's luck I'd just been dealt.
Our reading began with the previously required anthology of essays, and my first assignment to the students was a theme on the subject of their very earliest memories. I asked them to describe as honestly and pictorially as possible in however many words proved necessary the oldest moment they thought they'd preserved. I told them that my own first memory appeared to be very brief but clear a sunbath in the yard of the house in which my parents were renting rooms; I was three or four months old and heard the approach of a grazing goat who'd soon begin to eat my diaper. The majority of my freshmen women brought me descriptions of moments from around age three normal enough, as I learned from psychologist friends. But Anne Tyler gave me 150 words describing a shaft of light that fell on her crib when she was some six months old (I've convinced myself I can still see the half-page, though I didn't save it).
When she came to my office for her first conference, I learned several interesting things. First she'd spent a good part of her late childhood and adolescence in her parents' house, only two blocks from my own parents'. She was sixteen years old now, when most of her fellow freshmen were eighteen. And she was a graduate of my high school in Raleigh Needham Broughton High, widely acknowledged as the best public high school in the state and there she'd studied with my own remarkable English teacher Phyllis Peacock, a woman marked by an outlandish but ultimately irresistible intensity of love for her subject (I've noted that Mrs. Peacock had been crucial to my decision at age sixteen to pursue a life of writing rather than painting).
It turned out that Anne had been similarly tempted; and even here in her first days of college, she still possessed a strong urge to draw and paint. Her brief description of such an early memory struck me, not so much by its few clear words of evocative prose as by the remarkable earliness of her small scrap of memory. (It would be years before I learned, and oddly from Anne's eventual husband Taghi Modarressi, a psychiatrist who was himself a distinguished Iranian novelist that an unusually well-stocked early memory was characteristic of dedicated writers. He even suggested that the act of writing might be a form of relieving, and unburdening ourselves of, the pressure of such memory.) That early in our acquaintance then, Anne Tyler and I shared several important things in our past experience; and our meetings could proceed with an ease that was not always native to freshman conferences, despite the fact that I was then nearer to the age of my students than to most of my teaching colleagues.
As my two freshman classes continued to read from the volume of essays, my next assigned subject for the theme was the production of an actual essay. I mentioned some possible subjects, most of them no doubt characteristic of my own recent concerns and maybe a little morbid for young women of such apparent good health and spirits. I suggested for instance an essay about their first encounter with death, a grandparent's funeral maybe. And while I don't remember any other single piece from that week's crop of thirty-six essays, I do recall Anne Tyler's. In fact I still possess a copy.
She called it "The Galax," and it describes an event from Anne's childhood when she and her three brothers lived with their idealistic parents in a quasi-pacifist community called Celo deep in the North Carolina mountains. In the short piece Anne joins a group of mountain women for a foray through woods to gather wild galax, an evergreen vine which they'll sell for Christmas decoration. With remarkable subtlety, for such a young writer with so few words allowed, Anne clarifies the degree to which she differs so profoundly from these embedded mountaineers. When I'd read the theme several times, and gone over it with her in conference, I acted on impulse and told her that, thereafter, when I assigned theme subjects to the other class members, she was secretly to feel free to write whatever she wished. It was my first impulsive move as a teacher and one that, most obviously, I've never regretted.
If only I'd kept copies of her work in the course of that freshman experience, I'd have an instructive and compelling portrayal of a gifted apprentice writer's rapid self-discovery and growth. And if I'd done discreetly what one of my colleagues has done throughout his equally long career that is, photographed each student for future reference I'd have another picture of the engaging woman Anne Tyler was becoming. In the absence of an early photograph, however, I attempted to preserve that memory in a poem which I wrote shortly after a visit to Baltimore in 1995 (the last time I'd see Taghi alive that good man was dying of lymphoma); and here are the opening lines of my memory
Thirty-seven years ago this month,
You entered the first class I ever taught
The gray-eyed Athena, straight as a poplar.
Tall, dark-haired and far more gifted
Than a tasteful billionaire's Christmas tree...
To have had the pleasure of such a presence with the mind that moved it in the first class I taught seemed, in my tyro's innocence, almost normal. How was I to know that it wouldn't happen often? Time, though, would tell me what an initial godsend I'd had a gift of sufficient richness to constitute one of the ultimate reasons for my spending, throughout my life, a part of each year at a teacher's desk. An unmitigated appetite for hope not money, surely is the fuel. Anne Tyler would graduate from Duke in only three years at age nineteen, but she'd be a member of one other class I'd teach.
In my second year back at Duke, I was asked by a stingy-hearted colleague (not Bill Blackburn) if I'd teach his writing course for a semester while he was on sabbatical. Maybe a better descriptive word is parched once he returned, he failed to offer so much as a word of minimal thanks for my work, only the flat assertion that he'd never have his course taught again in his own absence. Well, I'd taught it with great pleasure; and (for what it was worth to them) two of the students went on to become world-respected novelists. My colleague had no such luck, ever.
In the expectation of an interesting semester, I silently divided those older writing students into two sections. Those with whom I hadn't previously worked were in one; in the other I assembled an especially promising group of students with whom I'd either worked previously or had known well. Anne Tyler was prime among the group I already knew as were Fred Chappell and Wallace Kaufman, among three or four others. That second group would meet for one extended evening each week at Fred and Sue Chappell's apartment near the Woman's Campus. I'd met Fred in 1954 during my last undergraduate year and had published his first story and at least one of his early poems in the student magazine which I was editing then. When I was in England, Fred's drinking ran him afoul of the deans; and he retired to his home in the Carolina mountains. There he married his girlfriend Sue, who accompanied him on his successful return to Duke. They gave the class a warm welcome each week, and the group proved as remarkable as I'd hoped.
Copyright © 2009 by Reynolds Price