To Dr. O, With Love

A couple summers ago, I was tasked with coming up with a toast for Besfrinn’s wedding. At the time, I was swimming laps a lot at a local pool. Each day leading up to the wedding, I would backstroke and think about what I could say that would pay tribute to this incredible person who had meant so much to me. Immersing myself in that water brought on some inspiring memories and truly lofty ideals about fidelity and the miracle of friendship, but when I got out of the pool and sat down to write the toast, I became overwhelmed with assigning words to a relationship that I treasure intensely. Its remarkability makes me, interestingly, speechless.

Today is similar. I woke up around four this morning with those familiar feelings of incompetence. I have wanted to write about Dr. O for so long because his presence in my life for my four years of college and beyond was monumental. When I was feeling unmotivated to concentrate and excel in school for the sake of literature itself, he was the person I aimed to please. When I needed a friendly face who would encourage me to keep reading and striving for the next big thing when my old pal Self Doubt paid a visit, he was that person. He was that living symbol of words and inexhaustible patience. Back then, I cared more about what he – a 60ish but lithe Canadian man who kept his Norton Anthology together with rubber bands – thought about me than my husband who I met during those years. After all, B’s Norton Anthology had only been read once all the way through.

So what can I say?

I’ll start with something he said:

If you’re going to travel between England and France, don’t take the hovercraft because you can’t see anything

great-britain-mapOn at least a weekly basis, Dr. O would jot a map of Great Britain on the chalkboard in one fluid motion so we would have an idea of the precise origin of the piece we were reading for British Survey. Over and over and over his chalk would hit the board in some kind of pre-Internet supercut and what resulted was a shape that looked like a rabbit eating a disintegrating pumpkin. But we got it, and we learned to respect that shape because his own fascination and love for the island it symbolized (if only tangentially) bled into everything he said. Thus, when traveling there, don’t take the hovercraft because you want to see it all. These trips that we didn’t even know we were planning were being curated by Dr. O.

There was no “if.” Only “when.”

We also learned to respect our Norton Anthologies. Dr. O always advised us to be active readers, and in the same way that he advised us on the finer points of these literary trips we were all going to take eventually, he informed us that twenty and thirty years down the line, we’d appreciate the underlined passages and notes we had made as undergrads in our books. The idea of selling them back to the bookstore once the course was completed wasn’t even on his radar. We’d keep our books and whip them out on cold winter nights to read Beowulf or Donne or Spenser for our pleasure and edification. His own copy was completely spent from use, the words it contained stronger than the binding holding them together. He’d only bring to class the section that held the reading for the day. He didn’t need to, though, as he had committed to memory every single important passage dating back to before the Norman Invasion.

A real picture from my real Norton's Anthology, which I still have.

A real picture from my real Norton Anthology, which I still have.

My respect for him grew even after the classes I took with him were through. He had such a kindly demeanor and kept in touch with me as I started taking 300- and 400-level classes. I will never forget the day classes resumed for the fall my sophomore year. My dad had died only weeks before, but Dr. O found me before my French class began and gave me his condolences. I don’t know how he knew. There are a handful of moments that I can recall very vividly during that jarring time, and that was one of them. It is a result of that sloppily emotional semester that I don’t remember even one word he said in that French classroom that day, but I am still left with such an incredible feeling of comfort when I think back on it. At that point, I knew that I could not only respect him but also trust him.

I would often get up early in the morning so that I could meet him in his office before the day’s classes began. Sometimes he would have a little bowl of instant oatmeal that he’d prepared for himself in the School of Arts break room, and he would always ask me if he could get me anything. I was a little embarrassed telling him that I’d already had a danish and a coffee from Starbucks because such breakfast fare seemed pretentious and phony when discussed in a room where one entire wall was covered in books that were all older than me. I’d talk to him about what I was reading and where I should apply to graduate school. Being a devout Lassalian, he hated the idea of me going to a Jesuit graduate school, which I ended up doing when I went to Loyola. The meetings were often a lot like therapy sessions, with me talking a lot (surprising, I know) and him just listening and then reminding me that I was doing OK.

It won’t come as much of a surprise that B was just as smitten with him as I was those years ago. Everyone had to take Dr. O’s class, himself included. Before we left for Korea, B and I called up Dr. O to see if we could meet him while we were in town so we could catch up and tell him about the next big step in our lives. As we gathered around a table at a local fish fry – which, I should add, he suggested – no fewer than three people came to our table to say hello to Dr. O. One was a rotund middle-aged man who I think said he worked at a car dealership. One was a prominent news anchor in Memphis who we recognized the instant we walked in. The third was a woman probably only a few years older than us who was there with her young family. After each left, Dr. O would tell us that they were former students of his just like us.

As we drove home that night, B and I agreed that even though these people were all so different, we had something in common with them all.

Should we ever find ourselves on the same tour group to the UK, we will all know not to take the hovercraft.

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31 comments

  1. I LOVE this post! The lucky ones of us have had such a teacher–mine was in high school–and it pleases the heck out of me to see one acknowledged. Your affection and gratitude show through your writing, which is as it should be.

    1. Thank you, Anita! I have had a few teachers that made a real, lasting impact on me, and for that I am very fortunate.

  2. I didn’t know Dr. O, but I have a feeling this post did him justice. I loved it…and I kind of wish I had had him as a teacher. I adore that he was literally a tour guide for any future trip you would take to Great Britain. Nice work, my friend.

    1. This post doesn’t really do him justice at all, and for that I’m actually kind of grateful. It’s a good problem to have known someone who was so awesome that I can’t really express it. He was and still is beloved on campus.

  3. I LOVE this – I had several teaches like Dr. O – Stu Barr – my college humanities teacher comes to mind. I also like the cranky/Hunter S Thompsonesque teachers I had too – in fact, I loved school because of the people there that wanted to share their passion – not fill me with facts or their opinions…they wanted me to ask questions and think and DISAGREE – how many people INVITE you to disagree? Not many…

    I think there are a lot of gems out there waiting to be discovered – and when we open our minds and hearts to an experience, we find them. And they change us and you change them.

    1. Oh man, those last two lines. So true: the world is such a beautiful, more interesting place when we just open ourselves up to the people populating it.

  4. […] talks about her favorite Prof – Dr. O. I had several teaches like Dr. O,  really nice and caring teachers, my college humanities teacher comes to mind. But I also liked  […]

  5. I’m sorry, you lost me when you started writing about 300 and 400 level classes. (JK) I love the ending – akin to smelling the roses. :)

    1. Thank you ;D It’s funny you mention those upper-level classes because when I was in college and I wanted someone to leave me alone, I realized that all I had to do was talk about Beowulf and I generally got my space back.

  6. […] up with Emily from The Waiting and Ashley from Zebra Garden’s Blog Hop HERE.  The theme this week was anything about teachers back in the day.  Do read the other entries and […]

  7. I totally still have all of my Norton Anthologies! And they’re just as filled with notes. I mean, don’t you imagine still referencing or reading from them someday?

    1. I totally do! When I was taking the picture for this post, I was going through my book and seeing all those things that I wrote more than ten years ago. I like crawling inside that 19-year-old’s head. It was a lot simpler place. (Plus, it was easier to concentrate on Spenserian sonnets back then without a toddler hurling pepper mills across the room.)

  8. reinventionofmama · · Reply

    What a terrific tribute! “I was a little embarrassed telling him that I’d already had a danish and a coffee from Starbucks because such breakfast fare seemed pretentious and phony when discussed in a room where one entire wall was covered in books that were all older than me.” – perfect.

  9. SO SWEET. This is amazing. I am so glad you had him in your life. Did he come to your wedding? What was the local fish fry?! If it was Anderton’s, I will die of the awesomeness. Do you remember when we went there? What did we even eat, tuna and crackers??

    1. Unfortunately, he couldn’t come to our wedding because he spends pretty much all his summers in his native Canada. Doubly unfortunately, Anderton’s was already demolished waaaaaay before we met him that time. We went to this place whose name I can’t even remember that is at Cooper Young. Soulfish? I think that’s what it was called. I vaguely remember going there with you one time. Wasn’t it, like, in the middle of the day? How random.

  10. LM Becker · · Reply

    My copy of the Norton Anthology came out just a few weeks ago as I talked to my teen-aged daughter about some bit of Gerard Manley Hopkins that was on my mind that evening. She was astonished at how many notes I had taken in the book, and even more astonished that her mother, an Engineering Major, had taken sure pleasure in the courses.

    Of course I did! I, too, took as many of Dr O’s classes as I could. He, too, changed my life and gifted me with a great love for literature. Dr. O is a great, great man, with a deep passion for literature, life, and our Lord.

    1. That is so wonderful! While looking through my own book from his class while I wrote this, I found all the recognitions that he told us to mark and I was filled with such a feeling of warmth. It is such a treasure to have had a teacher whose impression I can easily trace through the steps of my life.

  11. Those truly great teachers, really do stay with us forever. Beautifully written, Emily. Any chance you can share it with Dr. O?

    1. He wasn’t a big Internet person back then so I doubt he is now, so I am going to have to actually call him using the – dum dum DAH! – telephone. This should tell you exactly how much I think of him since I absolutely hate talking on the phone ;)

      1. Oh, but think of the smile it’s bound to bring him! And you may be surprised… we all change. He may in fact have a computer/internet….!

  12. A rabbit eating a disintegrating pumpkin? Fabulous. How do you come up with these metaphors? I can totally see the drawing in my head. I wasn’t going to do Remember the time… this week, but you have motivated me to write about Miss Wilt. Must get to it.

  13. I beg pardon to differ with the esteemed Dr. O. regarding the Hovercraft.

    I rode this newfangled behemoth of a transportation solution circa 1979, and I daresay I saw well more than my ticket was worth.

    Granted, what I saw of worth was contained within the Hovercraft itself, namely the colourful fellow-passengers, their Eurocentric habits and the plethora of jokes about the vehicle itself.

    Be it known that the Hovercraft was likely the only means of public transportation available in Europe at the time which offered a natural air freshener-effect for close-proximity travel which can be nasally challenging in most other modes of Euro-travel.

    My Dover-to-Calais tickets are still sandwiched in some acid-paper photo album. You’ve inspired me to unearth them to share with my offspring at the risk of dating myself. Thanks for the spark!

  14. I still have my Norton Anthologies, Emily! Loved this post. Reminded me of a few of my college professors.

  15. I thought for a second you had somehow gotten a picture of my Norton Anthology; mine (which I still have and still reference 3 or 4 times a year) looks very much like yours!

  16. That’s awesome. I still have my Norton Anthologies too. I always meant to read the bits that we’d skipped in class, though I wouldn’t mind just revisiting what I studied at this point. But my eyesight isn’t great and the small print scares me. You just may have inspired me though.

    I guessed I missed out by going to a medium sized school. When I decided to go to grad school, I needed recommendation letters. So my senior year, I enrolled in 2 English lit classes with profs I’d already had so there would be a better chance of them knowing who I was when I asked for a recommendation. Of course, I also did Junior Year Abroad, so maybe it was my fault & not the school’s.

  17. Another Fan of Dr. O · · Reply

    I was privileged to have Dr. O for five classes during my college years at CBC (it wasn’t CBU yet): British Survey I and II, Renaissance Prose and Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Shakespeare. It seems to me that here isn’t a teacher at CBU that better exemplifies what being a Catholic educator is all about. I am an English teacher today because of Dr. O., and I am eternally grateful to him for all he did for me as a student.

  18. What a fabulous fabulous man! He’s the teacher every other teacher wants to be like. What a lovely post :-)

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