Most good teachers had a model. Robert Pinsky had Francis Ferguson; Mark Edmundson had Frank Lears. I was lucky; I had two. My Freshman Comp. teacher was Dr. Idelle Sullens, a Stanford-trained medievalist specializing in 14th century literature. But I was mystified to learn that she had also been a naval officer in World War II and Korea. And rumor had it that she was something called a “Daughter of Bilitis.” But what really fractured my high school brain was seeing Dr. Sullens pull up in her brand new `64 Mustang. That I understood, and it elevated her beyond cool. My disturbing discovery was that one could seem professorial but also be startlingly complicated. Two years later, it was the Lincolnesque Beat Generation scholar Tom Parkinson. One drowsy afternoon in Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, Parkinson recited Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”with tears streaming down his partially-paralyzed cheeks (he had been shot in the face by a student). I was embarrassed but also feared that this moment was profound in a way I might never understand. How could he so reveal himself? It took years to learn that throughout one’s life, good literature deepens and grows, accumulating, preserving, and incorporating intense personal associations. Now there are poems I can’t read aloud without leaking tears. Both are gone now, but the spirits of Sullens and Parkinson still gently remind me to be unexpected, singular, complicated, and exposed so that my students will see that one day they can do the same.
- July 12, 2010