August 2002, I entered my AP English Literature classroom. I took AP English Comp the year before, got a 4 and could smell myself a bit, and knew this semester was gonna be a piece of cake. Basically, me and a few friends practically ran the AP Comp class–the teacher was youngish and we were not impressionable, and already jaded in a way that I believe of which I’ve sort of regressed (is that possible? Or maybe I just became softer around the edges with time). We said No and meant it. We said, “That’s not what this essay is saying” and meant it. We wrote our lives out. And then, Whittle’s class.
In addition to AP English Comp my senior year and practically year-round track practice to save my State Championship place in shot put for my senior year and hopefully score a full scholarship somewhere, I was Sports Editor of the High School newspaper which met a full hour and a half before regular classes met, AND I was second place All State Bassoon Player. I took honors Physics that year and Macro Economics offered at my school for University of South Carolina College credit. Anyways, I had way too much on my plate.
And to add fuel to the fire, I hated poetry. I didn’t want to read Shakespeare when Whittle told us on that first day that we would be reading him and his sonnets and his plays. (Did I mention I was angry? Like militant) I didn’t wanna read all these white poets like Milton and his Paradise Lost or didn’t want to read The Heart of Darkness as one of the few black students in the classroom. I came into the classroom on the first day basically with an attitude of “Whatever. Just get me out of here.”
It’s funny to think what changes happen in a decade. When I entered that classroom, I just knew I was going to be a sports journalist for a national newspaper, and maybe play bassoon and flute in a Philharmonic orchestra, and yeh, I wrote some verses here and there, but I was mostly a story-teller as journalist or fiction writer and I had already by then read all of Richard Wright’s and Toni Morrison’s books at my public library and just knew that the world was evil and against me. Because I was black and woman. This idea of scansion and reading poems was hard. This idea that I was faced with of reading a book length poem–who wrote those?? why are we reading them?? why do i have to KNOW them for a test a year from now–scared me.
It helped that Whittle (we dropped the Mr.) was cool and understanding and enthusiastic. And approachable. I don’t know what it was about him or me–maybe my candor? even then?–that made us hit it off, but even in the face of my telling him that, and I quote, “I don’t like Shakespeare” he challenged me to write better essays about them, saying that this was the key to passing the exam whether or not I liked it. I remember in my free time–not reading Shakespeare or Donne–that I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and found a way to work that knowledge into my practice exam essay, and thought I had written the best essay in life. Whittle acknowledged it was the best I had written but still only awarded me a 6/9 possible points, the equivalent of a C, and I almost hated him for it.
Somehow I made it through the class, and learned–through osmosis? cause clearly…–enough to pass the course. Slowly, because I think I valued his honesty in a way that I think he appreciated mine, I began to slip him things I wrote outside of class. You know the deal: sad sophomoric writing rife with teenage angst and anger about inequality and blackness and suffering. He ever so kindly, in his own way, showed me that he appreciated the gesture, but pushed me to be clearer in my writing, that it seemed important what I wanted to say, but he wanted..more.
I remember sitting with him to go over my application essay for Chapel Hill. I cheated the system. Chapel Hill’s third essay choice was, “If you’ve written an essay you like for another school, feel free to submit it.” And I had wanted so badly to go to University of Maryland and knew that application like the back of my heart, and knew their third essay choice was a “free write.” I gave Whittle the first draft of my freewrite, about how angry I was that my best friend had died suddenly in 9th grade, and my grandfather, and my aunt–all the people I loved so dearly were gone, and here I was, still here. Alone. He challenged me to be more creative, to show the admissions committee more of who I was. He said, “I’m envisioning this as two things, but one. It will be amazing if you can pull it off, but what if….” And he trailed off into space, and then came back…”What if you wrote in one column a poem, and in another column the explanation of the feelings behind the lines of the poem, but that so they could be read separately or together?”
My eyes lit up.
I went home and wrote my first essay-poem I called it. Did contrapuntals exist then? Probably so. I brought it back to Whittle and the look in his eyes. He simply said, “Yes.”
In between graduating from high school and through college, I always made a visit to his office when I would visit South Carolina. The university press that published my book was also in my hometown, and when they threw a book launch party, it was the first time (after 6 years. Imagine that.) that my father and he had met, and he gave a speech at my launch party and expressed what a challenge it was to encourage me to keep writing, but to also want more from me.
He said, “I realize I’ve come to the point where I may not be of use to you, ‘Lana.” At that point, there might not have been any dry eyes in the room.
We still e-mail or talk on the phone every blue moon, and he’s since left my alma mater, and it’s kind of sad to think that I can’t come home and sit in his office. But I sent him my latest offering, my publication in The Rumpus, and he said:
Many of the passages were well crafted and several of the images were arresting (by my definition, the mark of a good writer). I smiled at the point where you broached the Morrison novel Sula because I had detected a nice similarity to her style that I thought worked well. As an essay, however, it seemed to me under-developed; I felt as though I needed more to better understand your connection to the “death bird” motif. One of the more gripping moments in the essay was the scene between you and C’s friend in the hospital. I enjoyed! Is this a new direction for you?
And I was both elated and challenged in the same breath. In the Whittle way. Did you see it: great job. You’re like Morrison. But the essay could have been more developed.
Sometimes I think: how on earth did I get here? from the girl who hated reading poetry, or one who never imagined a career based on teaching others how to write and read poetry, to a woman with a published book, who gives readings and lectures and workshops all over the world. It has to be as a result of good teaching, I’m sure. Although I definitely didn’t quite recognize it for what it was when I had it–there were many times I left his classroom salty and mad and thinking this was all a conspiracy. But what’s the saying? the wheat chaff gets easily blown away with the wind, and the hearty seeds will fall to the ground. And will grow.
Who knew that I would have to read Paradise Lost three other times after that first time, and come to love it…and even–dare I say it?–model my newest poetry project after it? Or the fact that I’m poring over my newest essay with a new fervor after reading Whittle’s response suggests that, I’m still growing. I’m thankful to have those steady lighthouses along the way.