The spring of my last year at the Children’s Home, I drove from Columbia to Chapel Hill to be interviewed as part of the application process for UNC’s School of Social Work. It wasn’t a happy interview and I knew afterwards this program would not be the right place for me. Uncertain what to do next, I decided to defer any serious vocational decision until I had at least completed my M.A. in English.
I took out a student loan for summer school classes at South Carolina and afterwards timidly approached the English Department Chair to inquire about getting my assistantship renewed. When he agreed, I again became a full-time grad student and completed the M.A. course work by the end of that academic year. Yet I still needed to write a thesis and the professor I hoped might direct my thesis was known to have gruffly refused several other students’ similar requests. But I asked him anyway and was surprised when he accepted.
On such moments, a life often turns, for months later, after he had read and critiqued the first draft of my thesis, Dr. Frank Durham tossed off, almost as an aside, what he had said to his wife the night before: “At last, a graduate student who can write.”
Eight life-changing words.
Why? Because we don’t always know these things about ourselves until someone we respect reflects them to us.
It was also Frank Durham who encouraged me to pursue a doctorate and recommended me for candidacy, although he was unable to finish directing my dissertation because of illness. He died before I received the degree. One of my regrets was not being able to tell him how important he’d been to my life.
Although I was a reluctant grad student, who stayed at it because I didn’t know what else to do, I look back now and count three wonderful takeaways from those four years. First was the opportunity to delve widely and deeply into the best works of western literature. Second was a love of teaching gained as a T.A. But the third and ultimately the most important were the eight words Frank Durham said to me.
What I never discovered in those years was any real interest in literary scholarship or criticism. I did my share of both, but only what was necessary.
Fortunately, grad school wasn’t the entire focus of my life in those years. Financial necessity nudged me into two other interesting teaching experiences. I also enjoyed a delightful taste of theatre with a summer outdoor historical drama and spent several of those years as a violinist with Columbia’s semi-professional orchestra. It was also in my last years in South Carolina that on one of my visits home, I met the man I would marry.
But my seven years in Columbia were more than just years that shaped my life and future. They were also a time of national tragedies and America’s bitter ruptures over race, events that would continue to shadow me as I moved north.
Next up: On Becoming a Writer: New York City