On the week I received my master’s degree from George Washington University, I stayed home from work to clean my house in anticipation of visiting well-wishers and overnight guests, and to finish up a few final graduate school projects. (Thanks to Smowmageddon, I still had evening classes the week before graduation.) I had also just survived a work deadline that required some very late nights and weekends, and made me fall woefully behind on final class projects that all came due at the same time. Work stress, combined with the pressure of the last few weeks of graduate school, combined to make me a very cranky and unpleasant human being.
On the Thursday night before my graduation weekend, on the subway ride to my last class to give my last presentation, I was mindlessly scrolling through my email on my iPhone when I opened one message from my undergraduate college informing former students that one of the undergraduate English professors, Dr. Joseph Garrison, had just passed away. Dr. Garrison had taught me creative writing in my freshman year at Mary Baldwin College, and American literature in my junior year. He was a tall, thin, and imposing man with long silver hair, and a deep, melodic drawl that always reminded me more of a tent revival preacher than an English professor. No other teacher in my academic career – and I was taught by nuns for 12 years – had ever intimidated me the way Dr. Garrison did.
I was despondent, despite the fact that I had no contact with Dr. Garrison in many years, and despite the fact that I was on my way to a class taught by a very arrogant Harvard alumnus who was about to determine my immediate future, and who should have been occupying my thoughts more than Dr. Garrison. I suppose part of this emotional fracas had much to do with timing. I was anxious, sleep deprived, and on my way to give a final presentation for a class that had been causing me a great deal of angst over the previous weeks. I had been up until almost 4 a.m. completing a project that involved creating a fictional publishing company and several fictional imprints, fictional manuscripts, and a fictional marketing and sales plan, all of which I had to present with real Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint slides. No one tells you when you are studying Byron as an undergraduate English major at a small liberal arts college that Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint slides are a necessity in your life if you actually want to work in publishing, as opposed to just reading books. I really hate Excel and Powerpoint. I hate the unpleasantness of interjecting business into the romance of publishing, which I believe is a sentiment shared by many who work in publishing, and probably explains the current economic crisis in the industry. I may not work in the most glamorous niche of publishing (I publish Congressional reports for the federal government), but I do work in publishing, and I love publishing. However, I discovered that hiring managers care very little if you can recite Shakespeare or analyze Walt Whitman, but they sure as hell do care if you can use Excel to show profitability on a book acquisition, or produce a Powerpoint presentation for an upcoming editorial calendar.
But Dr. Garrison was a romantic, most likely because he worked in academia and therefore never had to justify a book with a spreadsheet. There was a story (or rumor) about Dr. Garrison being mesmerized by a spider who was spinning her web in the bustling hallway of my college academic building, surrounded by enraptured students who had gathered around both he and the spider in hallowed silence, which was legendary among English majors. I was once in a class in which Dr. Garrison encouraged his students to close our eyes and breathe in the scent of the freshly-mowed grass that was being cut outside the open windows of our classroom. I remember self-consciously closing my eyes, listening to Dr. Garrison’s rich and silky voice stretch into the corners of our classroom and into our collective conscience, encouraging us to focus on the sound of the worms and bugs and roots pushing violently through the packed earth that had been created over the previous winter by the death and decomposition of the worms and bugs and roots of many past springs — the living pushing its way through the dead in order to continue the cycle of life — all contained within the ubiquitous and mundane smell of freshly-cut grass on an early spring, Virginia morning. I swear I could hear it all — even the worms. Dr. Garrison didn’t want his students to write rhyming couplets and flowery verse, but to search deep within ourselves for an existential sturm und drang in our daily existence. This was a very ambitious thing to expect from a classroom full of young girls who were more interested in fashion magazines and weekend parties up the street at Washington and Lee University or at the fraternities of UVA.
I started college with an overinflated opinion of my writing skills after having received glowing college recommendation letters from my high school honors English teachers, and having been told by twelve years of nuns that I had the talent to become the next Emily Dickinson. But in my freshman creative writing class, Dr. Garrison had very different ideas about my writing skills. I ran out of his classroom in tears in the second week of his class, after he put my poem on his chalkboard and used it to illustrate bad metaphor. Up to that point in my life, no one had ever suggested that I was less than a star writing pupil, and when he scrawled my poem onto the blackboard I was certain he was about to praise it — and me –as an example of literary excellence and great promise. I was wrong. Instead, he systematically and methodically dissected my poem with a clinical and detached passivity, as I sat in the front row of his classroom feeling more stunned and humiliated and exposed with each passing second, until I finally made a dramatic exit befitting a distressed heroine – a tearful, tragic Tess fleeing the cruel executioner who put her on the pedestal only to place a noose around her neck.
After that class, I avoided Dr. Garrison like a sinner avoids church, until I was forced to take his American literature class in my junior year in order to fulfill all of my English major requirements. The three previous years of higher education had thickened my skin and taught me some reserve. I sat in the back of the room, completed my assignments on time, and kept my mouth shut through the first half of the semester. But that wasn’t enough for Dr. Garrison, who cornered me in the hallway outside of my adviser’s office and warned me that he expected more involvement in his class if I expected a passing grade. I considered changing my major and staying in school an extra 3 years. In class that afternoon we were discussing Melville’s Billy Budd, and Dr. Garrison was frustrated because none of his students could successfully identify a literary theme that he felt was obvious in the novel. I had done a quick scan of the assignment before class – actually at 2 a.m. after a few beers at a pub adjacent to campus – but something in my subconscious suddenly clicked, and my brain-to-mouth emergency brake failed to engage.
“Um, Dr. Garrison,” I heard a voice that sounded suspiciously like my own echo through the tense silence, “could it be maybe the earth, air, fire, and water references of the four elements in Billy Budd that serve as the recurring theme?”
“YES!” he bellowed in excitement. He actual jumped on the top of his desk and thrust a long, bony finger in my direction in an orgasmic euphoria, and repeated, “YES, Colleen, THAT is IT!”
I wished, at the moment, that the earth would open up and swallow me whole. I didn’t know which was worse, running out of the classroom crying after being berated by Dr. Garrison, or wanting to run out of the classroom crying after being praised by Dr. Garrison. But when he asked me to elaborate on my point, instead of freezing up or running out of the room, I composed myself, took a deep breath, and elaborated like an adult English major instead of a scared college freshman. I got a B in American lit, which for Dr. Garrison was pretty darned good.
Over 20 years later, on a subway in Washington, D.C., just minutes after finding out that Dr. Garrison had died, I was reliving that moment as if it happened just moments earlier. The same rush of feelings ranging from mortification to pride cycled through me while I sat clutching my final graduate school assignment and my iPhone on a crowded, rush hour subway car. Arriving at my stop, I gathered my class materials and walked two blocks into a George Washington University classroom and faced my professor – a Harvard graduate (a fact of which she reminded us of regularly) with a long career in New York book publishing, who squinted over her glasses when we spoke with a gaze reminiscent of, well, Dr. Garrison. I composed myself and gave a presentation worthy of an adult graduate student two days prior to receiving her degree. The day before my graduation, I received an e-mail from my professor informing me that I had given an excellent final presentation and had received an A- in the class (which for her was darned good), wishing me luck in my career in publishing, and telling me how much she enjoyed having me in her class. DAMN!
And then I started crying. Seriously crying. These were not the tears of an 18-year-old who was told that her poetry sucked. This was a serious, adult sob. I was partially crying for Dr. Garrison, and partially reacting to being exhausted and stressed and existing atop an emotional precipice due to prolonged work and school pressure for several cruel and unrelenting weeks. A wave of emotions from relief to melancholy to nostalgia passed through me all at once. I felt like the mortified 18-year-old again who was running out of a creative writing class in tears, and then an adult returning to graduate school amidst the pressures of a full-time, demanding job, and a mortgage, and a relationship, and then just me – sitting at the kitchen table of my little bungalow in front of my laptop sobbing like an idiot.
Your demons aren’t supposed to die. They are supposed to hang over your life, and haunt you, and bring up inconvenient feelings at inappropriate times. Sitting there crying, I felt like a bad metaphor scrawled on Dr. Garrison’s black chalkboard – held up for ridicule, or constructive criticism – it didn’t really matter. Aren’t we supposed to carry our demons with us forever, as demonstrated in the poems and stories that we studied in our literature classes that told us tales of good and evil, of sailors and albatrosses, and of tragic heroines and their executioners? Our demons are not supposed to die. I was pulled back in time to that moment when I was a humiliated girl running from his classroom in tears. And in reliving the humiliation again, I realized that I had made the mistake for 20 years of believing that Dr. Garrison was my demon, when it had been her all along – that young woman who would rather run dramatically from a classroom than face and correct her own imperfections, or stand up for her ideas. She was the one who had haunted me, not Joe Garrison, and in facing her again I could finally make peace with my demon.
It would be the last thing I would learn from Dr. Garrison, and it took me 20 years to figure it out. Which is appropriate for a man who did not believe in just reading or studying the written word simply the for themes and characters, but rather believed that true enlightenment could not only be found in a Whitman poem, but also in an actual blade of grass. It takes a lifetime of pausing to meditate on the scent of that freshly-cut grass, or taking the time to analyze a very small spider spinning a web in a busy hallway to figure that out. The next morning, I put on my graduation cap and gown and my master’s hood and I went to my commencement ceremony thinking about a college professor who had changed my perspective on not just spiders and grass, or on a Melville novel, but on who I was and who I had become. For me, at least, this would be Dr. Garrison’s final lesson.