On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stephens College and a Returning Woman

     You know how something completely unexpected and unplanned can change your life to the good?  
     Well, I nearly botched one of those God-given opportunities at the outset.
     In the mid-'80s, I had just been hired as a writing aide at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tennessee, with only an associates degree under my belt.  I knew that in order to get ahead in the academic arena, I'd need more education, but I was stumped as to any viable choices. There were no near-by colleges in those days offering night courses for part-time students.  Then, by chance, I ran across a newspaper article about a program called Stephens College Without Walls. 
    Intrigued, I called the contact person and found out that any "returning women," as they were designated, over the age of 23 with a high school diploma were eligible to enroll and work toward a bachelor's degree.  I particularly liked Stephens' motto:  "Women who are going places begin at Stephens College."  I signed up immediately.
     A few months later, I hopped a plane for Columbia, Missouri, to join fourteen other women of  different backgrounds and education.  We were to be closeted together where we would receive orientation to the college while attending a duo-discipline course--all within eight days. 
     It was an enlightening experience.
     After I returned home, I completed the course work begun at the college, and began work on Jacobean Shakespeare, and that's when near disaster overtook me.  My first assignment was The Taming of the Shrew.  I wrote my required essay, not availing myself of the suggested theses, but constructing one of my own choosing, which the instructions allowed.  Days later, I got the essay back in the mail without a grade, marked heavily with red ink, but with no constructive criticism.  The comments seemed trivial to my mind; nonetheless, I was told I needed to redo the essay "to improve it" and send it back for a grade.
     Well!  For two days I stewed over this, but I couldn't see that I'd goofed in any way, being very familiar with the essay form.  Finally, I called the professor.
     "Sir," I began respectfully, "you're asking me to improve my essay, but I can't.  I feel that I've supported my thesis and done the best job I could in writing this.  I'd have to write a completely different essay."
     "Jeanne, I'm sure you can do a better job.  I always have students re-do their first essays they turn in."
     "I'm afraid that's not going to happen with me," I said, hotly.  I had been frustrated; now I was angry.  "I said I'd done my best, and your criticisms didn't really make sense to me."
     "Jeanne, I'm your professor. You can't talk to me like that!"  He really did sound shocked, but I felt cornered and had no place to go other than defend my assertion.
     "I can and I did!"  With that, I slammed the receiver into the cradle of the phone (we had real phones then, not just electronic devices.)  He called me back immediately, but I had my son answer the phone and say I was not available.  What more was there to say?
     But this couldn't be the end of my dreams--surely.  So I called the English Chairwoman, whom I had earlier met.  I tried to remain calm as I explained my dilemma.  Her first words were, "He's a nice person, really."  Then she suggested I make a copy of the essay and send it to her.  She'd get with him and then back to me.
     I had little hope of this coming out right.  I'd defied and then challenged a professor, right out of the starting gate!  Yet the next evening I got a call from him telling me he would not require a re-do of my essay. 
      "Let's start over with the next assignment, Jeanne.  Shall we?"  He seemed more than accommodating. "I hadn't examined closely enough your originality.  I'm sure we can work together in the future."
     I did finish that course and then another one from him, doing well in both classes.  In fact, we became quite friendly.
     A year and a half later, at the Awards Ceremony prior to Commencement, it was that professor who handed me my prize, a book from the English Department who had selected me as "Outstanding English Student of the Year."  I mention this not to brag but to illustrate the importance of doing what we believe is right for us, whether it's jumping into a new venture or standing up for ourselves.
     The professor did say, upon our first face-to-face.  "You look different from what I had imagined."  I wondered if he'd had the face of a gargoyle in mind!
    Stephens College has discontinued this program, but for me, my experience remains one of the saving graces in my life, and I'm grateful for the opportunity given me.  I went on to graduate school and then to teach English at the college and become Director of the Writing Center, my own pet project, all because of College Without Walls.


  1. Thank you for visiting my blog and signing up as a Follower. I have reciprocated.
    Your story is a great example of how we must stand up for what we believe in, even when we aren't sure of what the outcome will be. Since I do a political blog, I can compare it to the conservatives in the House of Reps. I hope they continue to stand up for their beliefs and do what the people elected them to do, no matter what the consequences.
    Good luck with your new blog!

  2. I appreciate your comments as well as following my blog. I hope to have stories showing people doing the best they can in the face of obstacles. I grew up hearing about my hard working, self-reliant forbears, who emigrated to this country expecting largesse only from their own efforts. I hold them up as my heroes.

  3. Jeanne, Congrats on your new blog and this is a great story about your Stephens experience. Regarding your comment to CL about our ancestors' self-reliance, would that more people today could see the long term benefit of that approach instead of depending on federal programs for this or that handout or bailout. By the way, CL's blog is great; I've been a visitor several times and will return for another visit soon.

  4. Welcome aboard to Anyone Train Their Their Dog. You sound like the type I admire. I grew up on the Canadian Prairies and if it wasn't for the stubborn determination of the Swedes and Germans nobody would have lasted. Naturally many of them became increditably successful because of these attributes. Arturo

  5. Thanks for your comments. I hope to write about the ideas that make a difference in this blog. I like dogs, too, and although ours is too old for much more training (14 in December), I enjoy reading about such things. The picture of Louie is when we first got him at almost 4. He appears in my next novel to be released on Kindle in a month or two.

  6. This story is quite encouraging to a 43-year-old freshman. I started college last year to learn how to write. I am looking forward to reading your blog posts. Thank you for sharing.

    By the way, Louie the Papillon is a cute little guy.

  7. Thanks, Paul; I hope your experience is as rewarding as mine was. Keep up the good work!