I wrote this about three years ago I think, about my friendship with one of my Earlham College professors, Gordon. Sadly, he and his wife were out of town this past weekend, but I spent a week with them a year ago on a writing retreat, and I will try to get back for another visit soon.
I was thinking about this post, though, because it was really at our 20th reunion that I started writing again. At first it was just the reviews I used to write for Gordon’s book group. I’ve stopped reviewing what I read nearly as consistently as I did for several years, I think largely because I spend so much time writing other things now. But it was that book group that I so impetuously invited myself into (see below) that really started me on this path.
Scenes From a Friendship
Against his better judgment, Gordon allowed us to talk him into having our Humanities I tutorial outside, rather than in one of the small conference rooms of Lilly Library, where it was usually held.
“No good work will happen if we take the tutorial outside,” he insisted to the five of us: Jennie, Bart, Tanya, Hector and me.
We assured him that nothing could be further from the truth. “It’s so beautiful today, Gordon!” And it was, one of those idyllic September afternoons, clear blue skies, crisp dry air, a hint of red and gold in the trees that surrounded the red-brick library. “We will be entirely focused, we promise. We will not be the least bit distracted by the beauty of the day! Pleeeaaasssee?” we pleaded, like children.
“What is the point then?” Gordon deadpanned. “Nothing good ever comes of taking class outside.” Nonetheless, we prevailed. As it turns out, Gordon was probably right, because I only recall two things after we went outside, and neither of them has anything to do with the Humanities papers we were supposed to be discussing.
The first thing I recall is what I was wearing: a blue and white striped Oxford button-down shirt with a white knit vest over it and jeans. I remember this very distinctly because just that day I had decided, for the first time since I was about thirteen, not to wear a bra, and I felt very daring, but also just a little bit self-conscious about whether it was too obvious that I did not have on a bra (hence the vest over the shirt). This memory is quite amusing to me, as very quickly – like probably the next day – I stopped caring entirely what anyone thought about whether or not I wore a bra, and I have only on very special occasions worn one since. I hate bras, and that was the momentous day that I realized that I could be liberated from such torture. Right there on the lawn outside of Lilly Library, in Gordon’s Humanities I tutorial.
The other distinct memory from that afternoon was that I asked Gordon how long he had been teaching at Earlham. “Seventeen years,” he responded, to which I not at all diplomatically noted that I was seventeen years old. Gordon looked startled, which I now understand perfectly, as I am now forty-four years old, the same age Gordon was that day.
I was startled and honored and maybe just a little confused that Gordon invited me, along with Jennie and Anne and Ansley and … what was her name? I don’t even remember her name, but I’m pretty sure she was Jewish. Or an English major. Because everyone Gordon took out for lunch just before we graduated was either Jewish, like Gordon, or had majored in English, Gordon’s field. Everyone except me.
I had managed to take Humanities I with Gordon, because I was put in his class by some angel in the registrar’s office; and I apparently had a tiny bit of good sense myself, because I took Intro to Lit with him my sophomore year, and read Adam Bede by George Eliot, which in one fell swoop managed to change my life for the better by about a thousand percent, and which caused me in fairly rapid succession to read every other book George Eliot ever wrote. I continue to savor her books to this day. But that was the last of Gordon’s classes for me: despite some lobbying on the part of several professors, I ended up majoring in Peace and Global Studies, a decision I do not regret, although I wish I had combined it with a double major in English, since I was so close, and since I most likely would have taken more classes with Gordon if I had. I seem to recall that Gordon might even have made such a suggestion, but if he did, it was not with nearly enough force as it turns out. As I recall, in fact, Gordon was actually lobbying me on behalf of a colleague in the Political Science department, who may have thought “peace” was a nice extra-curricular activity, but not something serious students actually majored in.
“Bob Johnstone wants me to tell you that you should not major in Peace and Global Studies. He thinks you are being overly influenced by George Lopez’s charisma, and that you should major in Political Science instead. I promised him I would tell you that, and now I have. But I think you should major in whatever you want to major in, though of course, it would be best if you also majored in English.” And of course, he was right, but I didn’t. I didn’t even take Gordon’s Judaism class, which in retrospect is inexplicable and inexcusable, especially given that I pretty much only hung out with Jews back then, and went regularly to Shabbat at Jew House, or, in a pinch, said Sabbath prayers with Jennie over pizza and beer of a Friday night. I even courted Julie, the pastor’s daughter, with a picnic of matzo and cheese because I was keeping kosher for Passover with Jennie and Cassie.
But I was not a Jew; in fact, I was a Quaker. I had become a Quaker in my Junior year because I loved agitating about peace; and because I actually believed in the Inner Light (still do) and that Truth could be discerned through consensus (which I also still believe, though damn it’s hard, and I’m pretty sure that the best you get is still little “t” truth); and because I just gloried in silence — gorgeous, lovely, deep, gathered silence. But truth be told, I was really a Quaker — and a Peace Studies major, for that matter — because I was being overly influenced, not by George Lopez’s charisma (though he WAS charismatic, it’s true), but rather by the sad eyes and quiet wisdom and wry wit of another professor, who shall remain unnamed. This other professor, I loved him so much. He meant the whole world to me.
Which meant, among other things, that I didn’t take any more classes with Gordon after Intro to Lit first term of my sophomore year. But he still invited me out to lunch with Anne and Jennie and Ansley…. and what WAS her name? Curly hair, maybe just the tiniest hint of a lisp? She wore flowy scarves draped artfully yet casually … It’s going to drive me crazy. Anyway, I was most certainly the lone Quaker PAGS major at that graduation lunch with Gordon, and the honor of that was not lost on me (especially because by then, that other professor had dumped me, being first quite annoyed when I offered a feminist critique of his syllabus, and then totally freaking out when I came out to him as a lesbian).
(Toby, that was her name.)
At our tenth reunion, Cassie and I unexpectedly bumped into that other professor off campus after our class’s reunion dinner. Cassie and I had been roommates in college for three years. We were also both PAGS majors, and we were affectionately known by that other professor as “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” or, alternately, “The Gruesome Twosome.” We were pretty inseparable a lot of the time, especially in PAGS circles. Ten years after our graduation, Cassie had just finished a Ph.D. in sociology and was working as a research assistant for Jonathan Kozol, the renowned writer and education activist. I was about to graduate from law school, and Julie and I had just had a baby. As we stood on the sidewalk in downtown Richmond, that other professor turned his back to me – literally — and gushed to Cassie: “Everyone in the department is just SO PROUD of you!” On and on. A doctorate from Boston College! Jonathan Kozol! What an honor! Cassie was mortified as he proceeded to ignore me, and failed to ask anything about my life.
The next day Jennie and I went to visit Gordon, and when he turned his attention to me, he pretty much only wanted to talk about Trixie, who was all of six weeks old. He was also very glad to hear that I had loved law school, but it was clear that Gordon thought being a parent was just the best thing in the whole world, and he was genuinely thrilled for us. His delight would have been touching under any circumstance, but given the context – entirely unknown to Gordon – his kindness moved me almost to tears.
Jennie made a date for me and Julie and Ansley and Melissa to accompany her on a visit with Gordon, now retired, on the Saturday afternoon of our twentieth reunion. I needed a safety pin and Micah needed to work out some energy, so I offered to take him on his scooter up to the bookstore on campus, and meet them a little later at Gordon’s house. It was another perfect autumn day, and I was happy to have a few moments alone – or as alone as one can be with an energetic four year old – in the midst of so much talking and catching up. I was looking forward to seeing Gordon, but other than a few letters we had exchanged almost a decade ago, I hadn’t really stayed in touch.
When we arrived, Micah joined his cousin Gillie in the grandchild-friendly basement, and I jumped right into the conversation about, not surprisingly, books. Gordon loves books more than anyone I know. I recently saw a long-lost friend from college days, who never had a class with Gordon, but who still remembers a lecture he gave to the college in which he confessed his despair that he will never have enough time to read everything he wants to read. And everyone who went to Earlham College in the forty years that Gordon taught there remembers him as the guy who always had his nose in a book as he walked across campus.
“Do you ever miss teaching Gordon?” asked Ansley.
“You know, I had an almost perfect career, a career most professors can only dream of. I loved teaching very much,” said Gordon. “But I love reading even more.”
I wasn’t surprised that Gordon was talking with a bunch of now-middle-aged former students about books, but I was surprised that he hadn’t changed at all. He looked exactly the same as he does in my mind’s eye on that September morning outside Lilly Library in 1983. He had on jeans, and a polo shirt, and tennis shoes, just as he always does, and he was very fit, and prone to the same bouts of understated, wry laughter that interrupt his otherwise typical deadpan. It was very comforting.
The way Gordon loves books is infectious. Of course, I love books too, and upon joining the conversation, my desire to talk about books with Gordon suddenly felt insatiable. I regretted having delayed my arrival for a safety pin, of all things, and I jumped right in, quizzing Gordon about what he was reading, what would he recommend on this topic and that. Finally Gordon confessed that he writes a short review of everything he reads, and if I would like he could print out a copy of, say, the past year’s reviews.
“Yes please!” I said, and we all followed him into his study, a large, sunny room with built-in bookshelves on every wall except the one with large windows, under which is Gordon’s desk, covered with photos of his four children and eight grandchildren.
“So, you just write a review of everything you read?” I asked. “Just for the hell of it?”
“Well actually, I am part of a small group of readers who write such reviews. We email them to each other,” Gordon explained as he printed out pages and pages for me, over one hundred reviews already from 2007 alone.
“Can I join that group?” I blurted out.
In retrospect, I am a little mortified that I so impulsively invited myself into his book group. As it turns out, this group consists almost entirely of Gordon’s family, and for the most part only he and his wife write reviews. It was entirely possible – likely even – that such an impertinent request would not have been welcomed from a former student with whom Gordon had been out of touch for a decade. But Gordon is nothing if not gracious, and the next day, after reading all of Gordon’s reviews straight through, in one sitting, I sent off three reviews of my own.
If I neglected Gordon for ten years between reunions, I have more than made up for it with my relentless pestering in the past two years. I review everything I read without fail, becoming the second most prolific reviewer in the group, right after Gordon. But even more satisfyingly, Gordon and I have struck up a correspondence via email – always starting with books, but continuing in free-ranging conversations about politics, family, religion, you name it. I sometimes find myself worried that I’m gushing, but I just can’t help it, I enjoy our conversations so much.
And now I am sitting on Gordon’s living room sofa, legs curled under me, a pile of knitting in my lap. Jennie and I are staying with Gordon and his wife for the weekend, to visit with them and one another, Richmond being almost halfway between Iowa and Philadelphia. We’ve made a dinner of quiche and roasted sweet potatoes, and have settled down with glasses of good beer and several hours of conversation ahead of us.
I have no idea where Bart, Tanya or Hector are, but Gordon, Jennie and I? Twenty-six years later, we’re still sitting around, talking about books.