Note: Each spring, St. Mike’s has a symposium showcasing student work of all kinds scholastic and creative. The English Department usually offers a number of sessions, including presentations by seniors, as well as “Writers Reading Their Writing,” which showcases our creative writing students. In 2014, Nick Lemon, English major and writing coach par excellence, read the following essay about the joys of being a major in our department. Although it made us blush with pride, we post it here with his permission.
When I started thinking about what to read today, I had this idea about writing a letter to my English teacher from high school who told me not to become an English major. Since I wound up becoming one, I thought that’d be fun, so I started writing. It stopped being a letter to her and became a shout-out to the Saint Mike’s English department. I figured they deserve a little credit for their troubles…
When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher scared the crap out of me. On our first day, she stood by the classroom door and requested we take off hats and spit out gum. I always wore a hat so I was completely thrown off when she asked me to remove mine, but I was too passive to argue. I just pulled it off, found a desk in the back of the room, and fumed silently to myself.
Going over the syllabus for the class, I can remember thinking that Mrs. Sullivan was absurdly strict. No hats, no gum, no late work accepted. Zero credit for late work. No exceptions. I’m sorry, like, no credit at all? Now that I’m at the end of my college career, how enraged I was at these policies illustrates my immaturity at the time, but they were truly concerning for me. I hated Mrs. Sullivan, and I was going to hate her class, too.
For the first quarter, I kept to myself. I struggled to write one page on what I thought the meaning of humanity was: that was our first assignment. I kept getting homework back with Please See Me scrawled beautifully in green ink at the top, and I would just roll my eyes as I stuck the newest returned assignment into my binder. I made sure to never be the last one out of class, lest she ensnare me and force me to talk. I managed to exist on avoidance until my first quarter grades came in; there was a glaring 78 next to “Intermediate English,” the lowest grade I’d ever received in my life. I was convinced it was the product of having the most difficult teacher that had ever existed in the history of the world, but my mom told me I needed to go talk to her anyway. There would be no negotiation.
This is how I found myself staying after class one day with the latest Please See Me assignment in hand. It was supposed to be a character analysis of Simon from Lord of the Flies, but was really just some re-worded SparkNotes quotes, though I did have some excerpts from the text itself. Mrs. Sullivan asked how she could help. I didn’t have an answer.
“Uh, you asked me to come see you?” I held up the paper like a shield, and she began. All I can remember from that meeting is, as I was leaving, the most astounding thing happened:
“All I’m asking,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “is for you to go home, sit down, and think.” Mrs. Sullivan had an attitude and, for some completely unknown reason, my own developed in this moment.
“But it’s soooooo hardddddd,” I joked, frustrated.
“Go!” she ordered, and as I turned around to say “fine,” she stuck out her tongue at me and blew. Thppppppppp! That was the catalyst for every awful emotion I had ever harbored toward her. That simple, puerile act knocked the unwarranted disdain right out of me. I consider that to be one of the most formative encounters of my life.
The rest of my Sophomore year grew from that magical moment. I started thinking, started to develop an understanding of humanity, and started going to see Mrs. Sullivan of my own volition. She quickly became my favorite teacher; I had never wanted to do so well in any of my classes before, and I had certainly never worked so hard. I finished out the year with a grade in the mid-90s.
I decided to take Early British Literature with Mrs. Sullivan the fall semester of my Junior year. It was the best. I was captivated by Old English, and Middle English, and the class made me realize that I should probably be an English major. In talking with Mrs. Sullivan, though, she had mentioned that being an English major had ruined books for her. She was far too critical of everything now, and couldn’t enjoy trashier novels like she used to. For me, on the other hand, being critical made English fun. That, and being able to piece together meanings from symbols and archetypes. It was possible for the tiniest detail to be the most important aspect of a novel; reading became a puzzle. It was nowhere near ruined.
So when I got to the end of high school, I still wanted to major in English. I went to Mrs. Sullivan to ask her to sign my yearbook, and as she was doing so, she asked what I was thinking about for a concentration.
“I’m thinking of English,” I told her, smiling to myself. She’d be proud, right, because she’d completely turned me around and I loved her classes so much I couldn’t stop thinking about them, couldn’t stop going after class to hash out the smallest details of our latest assignment.
“Ugh, don’t major in English. You could do so much better!” As much as I had wanted a positive reaction from her, I had been expecting something like this.
“I mean, I don’t know for sure that I’m going to do English… I’m going to Saint Mike’s undeclared, but that’s what I’m thinking at this point.” She rolled her eyes and passed my yearbook back to me. I said thanks, then I graduated, and we lost touch.
But I became an English major. I blame Will Marquess for my final decision, because he was my first-year sem professor and I loved his class so damn much. I learned a ton, and it was hard work, but he made it a blast, enough of a blast to make me sure I wanted to spend four years of my life reading and writing extensively. I thought he was so cool that I asked him to be my advisor, but also so cool that I was unreasonably worried he might say no. Thankfully he was all for it, so I was officially an English major by the end of my first semester. But over that first Winter Break, I had a scary thought: what if none of the other English professors were as awesome as Will? What if I had simply lucked out with him?
All of my English professors have exceeded my expectations, in their own, unique ways. Each one of them made me love something that I didn’t intend to care about; discussions from each class wound up seeping into the others, illustrating this strange inter-connectivity I hadn’t anticipated. In Intro to Lit Studies, Jon D’Amore made me love short stories. In American Naturalism with Bob Niemi, I discovered the most messed-up work of fiction I had ever – and have ever – encountered, and to this day, it remains my favorite text that I was introduced to in a college class (it’s called Knockemstiff, you should check it out). Liz Inness-Brown Monley got me into writing prose, which I had never cared much for. Greg Delanty made me aware of the necessity of “the gap” in poetry and, subsequently, I learned to mind the gap in my own writing. Christina Root got me interested in Romanticism (just to be clear, I’m talking about the time period here). Bridget Kerr’s Creative Nonfiction Writing class showed me the importance of free-writing. My Senior Sem with Tim Mackin kept me thinking about how we know others, and can we really know others? Can we really know ourselves, even? Lorrie Smith currently has me contemplating how truthfulness heightens complexity, and then there’s Kerry Shea. Kerry somehow managed to ingrain Critical Theory in my psyche and now it won’t go away; I’m constantly apologizing to my friends for bringing up theory in casual conversation, for turning everything into an analysis. I’ve definitely acted on my involuntary impulses to yell absurd things like, “Oh god, you could do Lacan with this,” and “it’s the Panopticon,” and “Oh no, the simulacrum!” Thanks for that, Kerry…
My favorite thing about the English department, though, is that every professor seems to have a group of majors who is obsessed with them. Ask a group of us, and there’s a good chance we’ll go on and on about how kind, and funny, and insanely intelligent these wonderful people are. Just from what I’ve heard, I’m really upset that that I never got to have classes with Maura D’Amore, Nat Lewis, Kathy Balutansky, Joan Wry, Joel Dando, Nick Clary, or Carey Kaplan. They have some pretty enthusiastic followers… Some of us are open about our obsessions, and may even have the guts to (try and) befriend our favorite professors; others of us are still far too intimidated by their spectacular awesomeness to do anything but work our hardest in their classes. But we love them and could listen to them talk for hours. There have been multiple times that I’ve shown up to a professor’s office and lost track of time and, when I left, discovered that I’d been standing in their doorway for two hours. And it felt like no time had passed. I was talking to some classmates this week about how I never seem to make it to the chair in our professor’s office; one of them told me they hadn’t made it yet either, but they would now be working actively to beat me there. When I texted the next day to say I had made it, she texted back to say that chair, and these are her exact words: “is more precious to me than the Iron Throne,” and I should, quote “prepare to be displaced,” end quote. My other classmate happened to pass by in the hall as I was sitting in the office; when she saw me, she gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
I guess what I’m getting at is that a bunch of us are easily-excitable nerds who have a great admiration for those that make up this department. They’re unbelievably cool. We would do anything for the chance to go downtown and have tea or get drinks with them. Actually– does anyone know the proper way to go about asking this of professors? Well, let me know…
I’m extremely glad that I didn’t listen to Mrs. Sullivan when she told me not to be an English major. Sure, now I have to deal with people asking “What do you wanna do with that? Teach?” every time I tell them I’m what my major is. This happens without fail. But I’ve had a great four years with these professors; I wish I had more time, but my work here is close to done. Time for the “real” world. I’m sure my soon-to-be-acquired degree in critical thinking skills will come in handy outside of the college setting, right?