“Your poems are too sentimental,” she says. She says it in writing, not out loud to you. She doesn’t have to face you—a good thing, because you never want to see her face in person. She’s a big deal, a big shot in the writing world, and your big graduate school has just hired her as a professor. You wanted to take her poetry class so badly, and she asked for a writing sample, and then said no. But you are desperate to get into a poetry class, or any creative writing class because journalism—in which you will have a master’s in one year—is killing you, hacking away at all your creativity: first paragraph should have who-where-when-why-what-and-how. What else is left?
Your poems shake and groove in your notebooks. You can hear their music, late at night, like they are holding an all-night disco. They know you can’t resist a good dance, but as you lie in bed, you turn away from them and to the wall. You shuffle in your sleep, but your dreams are all black and white, like newspapers. All night long, yesterday’s papers flutter down in silence from a faraway and bleak sky.
You almost quit graduate school. In fact, you go as far as to call some friends and tell them you are done, leaving, outta here, sayonara, baby. Then your father calls. You stand in your dorm room and hold the receiver to your ear, and he tells you the thing you don’t want to hear: “You’re already halfway through.” One year down, but can you bear another year of journalism, a graduate degree you started just because you couldn’t get a job?
He’s a newspaper man, but he wasn’t the one pushing you to get this degree. You came up with that gem of an idea all on your own because you wanted to write, and you thought the degree might help out your cute little English literature degree which hasn’t scored you any jobs at all. Who wants to hire someone who wrote papers on Jane Austen and Kate Chopin? That skill won’t sell cars or insurance, won’t manage portfolios, won’t even help you count money at a bank. Not that you applied for those jobs, but still. No one wants to hire you. Period. You tell yourself it’s because of the slump in the economy, but you also wonder if you should have studied something else, something more practical. But what? Writing is what you have always loved, ever since your father stapled blank sheets of paper to make “books” for you to write in when you were just a little kid.
Now, twenty years later, your father is once again clinching the deal. He says on the phone, “You’ll never regret having a master’s degree.”
It’s David Citino who rescues you. He lets you and your ragtag posse of sentimental poems into his poetry writing seminar. You show up every class eager to write, to learn, to meet with other students who care about creativity. But it’s Dr. Citino who matters most. He has dark, curly hair and a thick mustache, and a soul that is light and kind. He labels nothing as bad, and he encourages you, even when your poems fall short, which they do often, even when you know they are full of sap and sweetness. He scrawls suggestions in the margins. He is helping you make better stanzas, better metaphors, better meaning. But mostly, he is saving your life.
His classes—which are the electives allowed in your master’s program—will get you through the second year of your degree in journalism. So will other people at your big school. The head of the journalism department takes some pity on you when your funding ends, and he lets you work as an admin assistant in the office with Phyliss, the head secretary. Phyliss is a large woman with an equally big personality. You’re scared of her at first with her booming voice, the way she thuds around the office with heavy footsteps, and her commands, which she has plenty of. She is a general to you, and you are, as always, an obedient and flinching soldier. But once she sees you are a hard worker, she softens. She makes you laugh every day. She and the other staff are all camaraderie, and this gets you through the winter weeks when the world feels colorless and small. Then it gets you through the spring. When a journalism boy you date briefly blows you off, Phyliss is the one who notices when he walks by the office. She says, at a volume everyone can hear, “He is so gross!” And you know it is mean and she shouldn’t have said it and that he might have heard, but secretly you are grateful she did. You want to hug her, but you don’t. She gives you a ruby pendant when you graduate, which you finally do after exactly two years from when you started your degree. You hug Phyliss then, and though you won’t ever see her again, you will remember her.
You’ll not only remember Phyliss and of course Dr. Citino, but also Kevin Stoner who got you a job at the big school’s agriculture information office where you wrote about soybean cyst nematodes and got your first newspaper clippings. You’ll remember your boss there, a big man named Stan who had a full beard and who wore cowboy boots and put up with how little you knew about agriculture, which was basically nothing except what corn looked like, which didn’t help your writing one bit, but Stan did. You will remember all the J School profs who encouraged you (who gave you decent grades because you worked hard, even if you weren’t in love with the subject, even though it will take you years to learn how to be creative in journalism) because the degree will eventually give you a career.
And you’ll even remember that big shot professor who said your poems were too sentimental—you will see her face twenty years from now on some ad on the Internet about some workshop she will be teaching that you know you will never take—and you will remember her and you will thank her, god you will thank her so much later for never letting you in her class. Things might have turned out differently, and you will realize—so much later than you should have—you wouldn’t want to change a single thing.
(Photo courtesy of Michael Knemeyer)