the good, the bad, and the ugly about the writing life

Top Dogs: Writing that Shaped Me as a Writer–“Once More to Reavis” Part 2

This week, I am writing about my own writing and how it has changed me. Check out Part I where I explain how I thought my life would turn out. Hint: There’s a Carol Burnett reference. I also talk about what happened after I wrote the essay that I am featuring today.

This piece was published back in 1984 in

Image courtesy of nongpimmy @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nongpimmy @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

, the literary magazine of the English Department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

Past the post office kiosk and the faculty parking lot, over the drainage ditch that supports a family of ducks, through a glass-fronted building, and I’m there: Reavis Hall. I walk the length of the building and stop to admire it. I carefully inspect every window, every door. I mentally hold my breath. Is it? Could it be? Yes. I breathe a sigh of relief. Nothing has changed. Reavis Hall is the same nondescript red brick that I remember. Oh, I suppose someone might distinguish the brick flower box out front as pretty in the Spring, when the ground crews fill it with petunias, as if four feet of beauty could intercede for the whole building. But in general, by all accounts, the building is hopelessly dull.

It didn’t always matter to me what Reavis looked like. I just came and went, the typical college student. I attended classes, went to movies, took too many tests and constantly tried to weasel my way out of homework. One day, I heard about a group tantalizingly plumed the English Club. It seemed perfectly logical for an English major to join the English Club, so I went to the first meeting.

To my surprise, I found that the English Club consisted of two old members, an advisor, and a room full of uncomfortable-looking people who, I assumed with good reason, were the ‘new’ members. I listened quietly as the advisor explained what the Club was about (anything) and what it had done (nothing), while I took a careful look at my environment. I was lodged in the corner of the ugliest couch to emerge to emerge from the Fifties. And, as if that wasn’t distinction enough, it was lumpy and the springs stuck out. It was also the most handsome piece of furniture in the room.

“The Lounge,” as it was euphemistically referred to, consisted of several beat up end tables, a green fake naugahyde chair whose seat had been repaired with what looked like pea green electrician’s tape, a couple ratty straight back chairs, a gray bookshelf, a love seat with taupe vinyl patched with silver duct tape, and two uncomfortable-looking red chairs, unlikely companions to my couch seat. One look told me that the entire suite had been donated from a none-too-successful rummage sale. Not that the furniture made any difference in the room. It is impossible to do aesthetic harm to a cinderblock room painted in shades of Pepto Bismol pink and tiled in Early American institution. Even the window ledge came complete with dead cactuses. I wondered, disconsolate, if anything worthwhile could happen in such a room.

Although I didn’t hold out much hope for the Club’s auspicious beginning, I listened. The Club’s advisor continued on about the Club’s activities and its plans for the future. I could not help but notice, as he talked, what an interesting looking fellow he was. He was rather short and stocky with an unmistakable New York accent and unruly hair that just covered his bald spot. His clothes gave one the impression that he had never fully recovered from the 1960’s. His lapel was wide, his ties bright, and his trousers had not just a little hint of the bellbottom about them. And yet, I liked to listen to him. His words were sharp and witty. His sentences had a cadence, a rhythm that invited listening. After a short while the hideous surroundings began to matter less. I do not mean to imply that they disappeared, but I didn’t seem to notice them anymore. All that seemed to matter was what this man was saying. I went home that night wondering what sort of beings could live in such ugliness and not only function, but cause you to forget about the environment simply by speaking.

The next day I made the marvelous discovery that my Introduction to Literary Studies teacher could do the same thing. Imagine for a moment the classrooms in a building that boasts such a lounge, and you will be but half right as to the institutional squalor. The curtains in most classrooms were gray plastic with some odd-looking geometric print. I don’t suppose that the print, itself, was odd-looking, but since most of the curtain rings were missing, the curtains dipped in spots, giving the print a rather ridiculously jaunty appearance. The rooms were the same cinder block as the Lounge and the colors were worse. The only claim to gentility was a small table lectern that looked to be made of cast-off paneling hastily glued together. Amidst these dismal surroundings the professor stood out.

His appearance was not unusual, at least not to a veteran college student. He wore a cardigan and a tie with some type of polyester trousers (as much of a mainstay to the professorial wardrobe as the sport coat with leather elbow patches.) His hair was too long, curling up a bit at the nape of his neck, giving him (curiously enough) the appearance of a poet. He hand a long face, his nose a bit too prominent, and deep-set eyes. He was tall and looked awkward someone. It wasn’t that he looked foolish or laughable; rather, that he looked almost as if he had been put together with spare parts. The man was a portrait of incongruities—until he spoke. And in that first instant of listening, you forgot the gangling body and remembered only the voice—a southern drawl with such mellowness and music in it, that merely listening seemed to warm you. Again, I forgot the dismal surroundings and concentrated on the man.

At first, I thought it merely odd that two professors could so command my interest that I forgot for a moment where I was. But as time went on, I began to realize that most of my professors, to some extent or other, could perform the same feat. That was amazing. I couldn’t explain it. None of my professors in other disciplines could do it. As I sat in plush, comfortable auditorium seats in a building with perfect white cloth curtains, I wondered. As I surreptitiously yawned through dusty seminars across campus, I wondered. And as I constantly clock-watched through a semester of lectures delivered by the most perfect man I had ever seen, I wondered. There had to be a reason, I was certain. And I was determined to find it.

I didn’t quite know how to set about my investigation. I thought that perhaps I should spend more time in Reavis. As it turned out, luck was with me because the English Club started getting busy. Although only a few people had returned after that first meeting, they were a determined bunch and set about stirring up the entire department. For the next few months I spent nearly every waking hour in Reavis Hall. I got myself involved in innumerable poetry readings, committee meetings, and film festivals. In fact, I was so busy that I nearly lost track of my investigation. All I ever seemed to do was come from, or go to, Reavis Hall. The funny thing was that I never seemed to mind it. I joked with the faculty. I planned events and programs. I gave advice that others actually requested. It was a wonderful swirl of activities. What I did not realize was that the building had begun to work on me.

I really didn’t notice it at first; it was such a gradual change. I suppose the first thing must have been that I didn’t find Reavis Hall such a dull building anymore. I suspect that I just stopped noticing. Then I began smiling just as soon as I stepped off the bus. Sometimes I’d smile right on past the windowed newness of DuSable Hall. But the minute I saw that red brick corner, I’d start to hum to myself. I’d hum all the way into the building and on up the stairs to the Lounge.

Then, finally, I noticed what was happening. It must have been in late March because the sun was shining and the air had a hint of Spring. I was making my way up the front walk to Reavis and I happened to see a good friend of mine waving from the second floor window above Reavis’ front door. I intensified my usual smile and waved back, thinking what a nice day it was and how lovely Reavis looked. I stopped dead. Could I really have thought such a thing? Reavis—lovely? Surely my sight was going. But as I looked up at the building again, I saw that it was true. Reavis did look lovely. My friend, however, looked a little confused at my abrupt standstill. I went in shaking my head, wondering.

Ah, but the changes didn’t stop there. It seemed that the more time I spent in Reavis, the more time I wanted to spend. I started doing my homework there—in the Lounge. I began eating my lunch there. I told friends to meet me there. I spent so much time in that room that one professor jocularly offered to name a chair after me. That was the worst part. I started sitting in those awful red chairs—and found them comfortable. Not only did the room no longer bother me, I kept insisting that the place could be salvaged with a few bright well-placed posters!

But the changes didn’t even stop there. I began to take an interest in my professors. They had seemed boringly the same after I discovered their collective ability. But now they became distinct personalities. And not just distinct, but interesting. Once I found a professor who interested me, I plied him with a thousand questions. What did he think? What did he feel? Where had he been? What did he dream? Until I suppose the ordinary professor would have shooed me away like any other persistent insect. But the Reavis-bound professors never did. They seemed to welcome the questions and the curiosity that bred them.

And, suddenly, my life was a parade of personalities. There was kindly Dr. A with his encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything. Our little chats frequently stretched to two-hour conversations about history and philosophy and education, and his favorite topic, the good ol’ days. I listened raptly to his arguments, occasionally clarifying a point or hazarding one of my own, as the conversation spun and eddied from one subject to another, ending finally, in a stalemate because he had to get home. I met good Dr. B. whose regal air was not dissipated a white by his little hand-knotted bow ties and baggy trousers. From Dr. B I learned to love Byron and Keats and not a little about academic fashion. I also came to know the earth-bound Hera, Dr. C., whose marble brow could cause the masses to tremble lest it furrow with displeasure. She would have been a wonderful despot if the world would stoop to a female Napoleon. The world being what it is, she administered, marble brow and all, a small empire of graduate teaching interns. And, I made the acquaintance of Dr. D., the amiable giant, who lumbered down the halls shying like a colt when anyone tried to engage him in conversation. That man did the finest Foghorn Leghorn imitation in all of academia. And, when tempted on by shy student giggles, he was known to quit his brilliant lectures complete with names and dates and places (which he tossed off completely extempore) in favor of a ten-minute comedy routine replete with sound effects. I guess the funniest part about the whole thing was that I not only enjoyed that world peopled with bizarre natives, but wanted to become a part of it.

That was probably the biggest change the building wrought, although I hadn’t yet realized that it was the building that was doing it. I felt an intense need to belong to Reavis, but I didn’t know why. I did not want to be a transient anymore, a student. I needed a sign, an outward symbol, that I was one of them, not just some intellectual hobo on a four-year sojourn. I cast about looking for something. And office, that’s what I needed! But I could not escape the fact that students were not allowed offices. So, I chose something a little smaller—a file cabinet. Ah, but even that was beyond my capabilities except for one half of one drawer that I managed to beg for The Club. I began to despair. There had to be something that I could have.

And there was, although it took me a little while to find it out. Something that I could share with the mightiest of professors—a mailbox in the English office. And, though it took a little finagling, I got my mailbox with my name printed neatly in black, last name first, on a tag at the opening. I was content. But the building was not. I guess she wanted her share of the glory. So it happened one day that I found the answer to the question I had asked nearly a year before. Why were those professors so different from the rest? I had naively assumed that it was the discipline or, maybe, the people who attracted folks of a kindred spirit. But it was the building.

It all became clear to me one bright Friday in April. I was sitting in my favorite red chair in the Lounge chatting with the professors who happened by, and feeling inordinately pleased with myself. My first attempt at a poetry festival had ended successfully with the President of the University reading his favorite poem. I had every right to be pleased with myself, I thought. Until she walked in. She was a brand new instructor hired for the second semester who called herself Satin. Somehow, she had weathered the chilly winter that they didn’t have in Texas and found herself smack in the middle of my musings.

“Gawd,” she said. I smiled politely, not quite certain what she was talking about. “Gawd,” she repeated, plopping down on the couch. “This place is a dump! How the hell can you sit in here?”

I was dumbfounded, the last vestiges of my smile disappearing. She waited a minute. I suppose she expected an answer. I had none. She looked at me—hard, as if the hardness of her look would elicit an answer. Then she changed tactics.

“Well? How do you stand it? That pink wall is enough to make me upchuck right here. And this gawd-awful couch…. Hell, the whole room is probably junk left over from some garage sale.”

I looked silently at her and found that I was angry. I wanted to hurt her, to hurl a blind rage of invective and chase her from the room. But I only looked at her. I found my tongue, but having found it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I took a deep breath and turned to her.

“I like it here,” I said in a voice that was just above a whisper.

“Oh,” she answered flatly. The, without another sound, she gathered up her belongings and quit the room.

When I went home that night, I stopped outside of Reavis Hall. I stood at the very same spot where I had first noticed that Reavis Hall was lovely. And, without even checking to see if anyone else was around, I blew that tired old red brick building a kiss.

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