When I first read this, I got really excited. What a great idea. (I suspect this person has a lot of them- great ideas that is). Anyway, I liked the idea of writing about women who shaped my life and eagerly volunteered to do the same. Throughout the month of March, I will write six posts. This is the first.
I suppose I could have started this assignment with an easier person, a person who’s more friendly, more caring, a little less like Simon Cowell- but I can’t. It has to be Dr. K. Perhaps because she is gone. Perhaps because I’m surrounded by her everyday.
She had wild red hair and tiny hands that were always slicing the air or reaching for ideas that I had never thought of before. She believed in God, Samuel Beckett and Mary Kay cosmetics. Her last three fingers on her left hand wouldn’t bend. I only noticed this last fall while she typed- they stubbornly refused to move while she helped whip up a program proposal that I would later submit and run. It really is the weird things you remember when someone is gone.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the fall of 2000, I took a theatre course as an elective. I had never taken theatre and I was pretty sure I would hate it. I didn’t. I loved it and found myself taking every class I could. I was annoyed with Arthur Miller and couldn’t understand the hoopla over Oedipus Rex. Miss Julie made me weep, The Importance of Earnest made me laugh. Suddenly everything Shakespeare made sense. Suddenly, my life made more sense.
It would have been easier to win a Tony than get Dr. K to burst out into laughter, but when you did, you felt like you accomplished something more than what an award would have brought you. She was the steady force in my life when everything else seemed easily swayed. She never demanded more than what you could give, but she demanded what you give be everything you could. Her disappointment would come through with a glance, and you would know to try harder, work later, give more. She once watched a rehearsal for a play I had written and I remember thinking it would be a success when I heard her giggling in the back of the room.
I remember once waiting for class to start and a friend sharing a long winded quote. As soon as she was finished I said “oh, I like that”, because that seemed like the right response after hearing a long quote by a dead poet. Dr. K looked at me and said “But it doesn’t make sense. What does it mean?”. And the thing is… I didn’t know. I didn’t think to question it, or even consider it might be senseless. I’m still ashamed when I think of how readily I would attach myself to ideas or assign feelings I didn’t feel only because I thought I should. With two sentences said in one breath, Dr. K got me to realize how important it was that I think for myself.
She had a group of us that she held close to her. The ones she selected from her classes, based on criteria I will never fully establish. We worked early on weekends, late on weeknights and became the kind of friends who think nothing of sitting in a back room in striped tights and full silver makeup at 1am waiting for a particular scene to hit the stage. I look at our group now and every single one of us is still tied to theatre in some way. I believe this is because of her.
After I graduated, we drifted apart and it was only this last fall I saw her again through a random meeting in the bookstore. I told her I wanted to do theatre again, and although looking tired and worn, she invited me to her office so we could talk. A few days of meetings and hours of exhausted research later, her papery hands passed me a completed conservatory program proposal. I said thank you, hugged her and walked out of her office.
I never saw her again.
She called of course, but I was always too busy, making plans, seeing friends, getting the program set up. I was young! I was busy! I listened to a message asking me if I could come in and sub her old class, and I listened to her machine as I left a message saying I couldn’t because I was already working.
I should have known something was wrong.
Weeks went bye. I heard she left the college. Stress leave. Due to bizarre circumstances, the college asked me to step in and finish up her classes for the term. I would now take over the rest of the semester for the professor I loved. She left shoes so big, I could have done cartwheels in them. I called her to ask for advice on how to teach students the same age as me. She was packing. She was leaving the next day. Moving across the country for a fresh start, such would be the only option for a woman like Dr. K. She didn’t want to say goodbye to anyone, I was told not to tell anyone she was leaving and she made me promise on the phone over my love for Oscar Wilde. I did. She told me she would call me when she settled, I pretended I believed her.
I’m in her office now. I find that I still think of it as hers, though my name is on the door. Her rushed departure left souvenirs of her life everywhere. Cleaning out the desk I found her Mary Kay lipsticks and date books from 1997 filled with her spidery handwriting and white bottles of gardenia hand lotion (I could never place the scent). I found a sheet of paper that has all of our names on it, the kids she took under her wing for those few years. There is nothing else, just our names and a question mark at the top. I like to think she wondered about us as often as we wondered about her. I found an old Oscar Wilde poster behind her desk that I labored over for a big assignment. It’s seven years old, tattered and is bearing my bubbly name in the corner. I’ve tacked it up on the wall and when people come in asking why it’s there I’m at a loss for words. I haven’t figured out a way to explain that it’s a reminder.
Not of the professor I want to be, but for the one I was glad to have.