My very first class at Wesleyan was Survey of American Literature taught by Dr. Leah Strong. The class met in Tate Hall at the end of the second floor overlooking the library. The ceilings were tall, the walls plaster and the dark wooden windows so heavy that when they were opened, which was fairly often because there was no air conditioning in Tate at that time, you could hear the chains creaking in the sashes halfway across campus.
It was a beautiful Indian summer day and the sunshine seemed to move in waves with the breeze that ruffled the gingko leaves. My classmates and I, probably 10 or 12 or us, were sitting in old wooden desks whose tops had been scarred with 50 years of initials and class names carved by the pens and pencils of daydreaming Wesleyannes.
I was sitting there wondering just how long one was supposed to wait for a professor when a figure came scurrying through the doorway. It was a short, chubby gray-haired woman wearing grannie glasses, black polyester pants, a Hawaiian print shirt and shoes my father would call brogans. She was carrying under her arm, not a briefcase or a textbook or a sheaf of lecture notes, but a motorcycle helmet.
She strode determinedly across the front of the room, set her helmet down in the middle of the desk and then walked around to the front and jumped backward onto the desk, leaving her short legs dangling like those of a marionette.
She looked around the room at us and said, “The definition of poetry ...” We hurriedly opened our brand new spiral notebooks and poised our pens over the clean white page.
“The definition of poetry ...” She looked around the room again. “When I was a child, my father used to bring home packages of paper pellets. These pellets were the size of BB’s and when you dropped one of these pellets into a glass of water it would slowly begin to unfold and unfurl until, a few minutes later, the pellet had become a beautiful flower. Each of the pellets was different. Each one produced a uniquely beautiful flower.”
She looked around the room a third time. “The poem is the pellet and you are the glass of water.”
I realized I was staring. I had not written a single word. And all I could think was, “Oh, my Lord, I’m going to love college.”
With such an introduction, it would be understandable if Leah Strong did not live up to the expectations created that day. But she did. She introduced me to the ideas of popular culture and folklore and taught me that the stories my family told, the songs my family sang, the language my family used — my family, strong and wise and unaffected country people — were things to be valued and preserved. She trained my ear to the cadence and melody of Southern voices, alerted me to the layered meanings of colloquialisms, made me tender to the weightiness of words like “home” and “place.”
I did not know these things, of course, when I shook her hand for the last time before I left Wesleyan as a student. I did not know how to articulate them when I saw her years later at a reunion. It is too late to tell her now.
I was thinking about Dr. Strong as I remembered a conversation I had over the weekend with Katherine and Kate. I’d just returned from a visit with an older friend who is losing some of her independence and I couldn’t find the words to express the feeling of choking grief that had me by the throat. I started crying.
“The whole cycle of life thing?” Katherine asked and I nodded.
Kate looked at me quizzically. “You’re crying over photosynthesis?”
It is difficult to laugh and cry simultaneously. Hard to tell which one is causing you to lose your breath and which is making your stomach hurt. And this time, at least, it didn’t matter.
Just like the poem as pellet, Kate had found the perfect metaphor. Or something like that. And in the warm September sun I could see Dr. Strong sitting on the edge of that desk and she was smiling.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” -- Antoine de Saint Exupery