Saturday, November 15, 2008

Lessons in the classroom

I didn't know he noticed me sitting silently in his class and hoping beyond hope that I could muddle through without ever being called upon or that I could hide behind the head of the student in front of me. Those of you who had Brother James Walker know that that could never happen. He noticed. He noticed everyone. I don't know if it was my look of apprehension or if he thought I really had something intelligent to say or if he just wanted to get me to say something in class.

Presumptuous sophomore that I was, and in the beginning stages of my English major career, I had two classes back to back with Brother Walker: creative writing and introduction to English literature. A friend of mine gave me fair warning that two English classes back to back would be challenging at best, but to have Brother Walker as the professor for both would be collegiate suicide. My first day, was a hit and miss. Creative writing was a breeze and I knew I would absolutely love being an English major. The class was small and intimate and I didn't mind because everyone seemed just as nervous; we'd all be nervous together. There is much to be said for solidarity. Br. Walker was funny, witty, intelligent and very encouraging. I knew I would learn so much from him. I vowed to do my best in class. So, how bad would my second class with him really be? Surely, my friend had been exaggerating. Br. Walker was great!

And then darkness settled into the land and all was lost.
Intro to English Lit was my first official class on a long list of classes for becoming an English major. It was very intimidating. I soon lost all bravado gained from my previous class. This class was larger and more boisterous. These students were real English majors. They seemed much more confident and assured. I, on the other hand, felt dead in the water. They already knew each other; I was the odd-man out. I knew life in this class was headed for disaster when Br. Walker started taking attendance. He was sharing some light banter with a few students in class that he knew by name. He knew their names?! A gnawing sensation grew in the pit of my stomach. I didn't want him to know my name! I wanted to remain nameless, faceless! I wanted to be a number on the attendance sheet and in some way still be able to absorb all that he would teach me. And then, it happened. He called my name and paused...for a long time. He looked around the room and then his piercing blue eyes found mine. There was a moment's hesitation as he struggled to recall where and why...and when it clicked, his eye brows raised just a little. "Aren't you in my creative writing class," he asked? I nodded and said, "uh, huh." (Boy that sounded like someone who should be an English major.) "And now, you're in this class?" Again, I nodded. Someone in the class said, "You have him twice? Good luck!" The class laughed, because they all knew the truth. No one in their right mind would take two classes from Br. Walker in the same semester! "You must be a glutton for punishment," said Br. Walker. And then he added, "see me after class, and if you want to drop, let me know." I knew then that I would never become an English major.

That was a tough semester, and I struggled through each and every class. We studied different genres in creative writing class and had to submit a piece for publication in the school's literary magazine. Intro to English lit opened a world that I had no idea even existed. We studied Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and learned all things literary...and then wrote about it. I wondered if anyone ever had a nervous breakdown from becoming an English major? I'm sure I came close several times that semester.

There was student in my English lit class named Bob, who was taking the class for the second time. Bob wasn't geeky or square. He was a surfer (which is why he had to repeat...too many days in the water and too few days in class) and all his sentences included the word "dude" in one way or another. Brother Walker teased him incessantly about having to retake the class, but Bob loved talking about Wordsworth and "all things literary." So much so, that he often made references to Mr. Wordsworth and Br. Walker in his column for the campus newspaper. I was in awe of Bob and Brother Walker. Bob was the student that I wanted to become (not the repeating student, but the lover of English literature). Brother Walker was the professor that I wanted to learn it all from.

Brother Walker has since retired from BYU-Hawaii. He might still be living in Hawaii or has returned to his native Canada. But he is forever ingrained within the person I have become. What struck me most about him was how his gaze never left mine as I struggled to put my unintelligible thoughts into words and have them come out sounding like a would-be English major. He would stand there and let me string my elementary vocabulary into something coherent and then he would push me to up my game in each class, each semester, each year.

I never told him how much he inspired me to strive to be a better reader, a better writer, a better lover of British literature. I never told him that through his efforts I came to love being an English major more than anything. I never told him how much I love him for all the lessons he taught me as a professor and as an individual. Thanks for noticing me, Br. Walker.


Ipo said...

I Love Bro. Walker. He was only intimidating to me the very first class I ever had from him. As he went through the syllabus and informed us that the final test would be 1/2 of our final grade. Yeah, that just about did me in. But I truly enjoyed all his classes. He was fun, only a few of us could see this in him because he was very strict. He helped me a lot especially with my senior seminar. I purposely picked James Joyce because I knew how much Bro. Walker loved Joyce. I was asked some pretty tough questions in my seminar by other professors and at one point I was stumped. I looked over to Bro. Walker and I knew he wanted to help me but couldn't. I took a big deep breath and then it came to me....the answer. I aced that senior seminar and I knew I did him proud. I could see that look on his face that any proud parent/mentor has when their prodigee is successful. Great memories. Thanks for bringing them back for me....especially today when I'm feeling quite blue.

Calidore said...

I'm glad this trip down memory lane has brightened your day, even if just a little. I echo your sentiments about Br. Walker. He really made an impact in my life as well.

Brenda said...

Hey you! So glad to see you're blogging these days. It's good to be in touch with someone from the Mish! :)