Every year around Thanksgiving, I share a post about an inspiring woman I’m grateful to have known.
There was never any doubt about what I’d study in college. When I looked at prospectuses, my first step was always to flip to the English department section, to see what courses they offered and what the English faculty’s credentials were. When I narrowed my list down to my top three, the strength of their English departments was one of my two deciding factors.
From the moment I stepped into the English building at my eventual alma mater, I felt at home. I was nervous, sure, but the building was old and homey, the professors were friendly and funny, and the older students were incredibly welcoming. That first semester, I took a special writing class that paired incoming first-years with older students as mentors. And right away, I noticed that a lot of our mentors seemed to be devoted to one of the professors in the department.
I’ll call her Professor M. They said she was incredibly smart, witty, and kind. That she challenged their assumptions and made Shakespeare – her specialty – seem fresh and new. It was my second semester before I caught a glimpse of her in the building. On top of all the wonderful qualities my fellow students raved about, she was beautiful, in a decidedly I-look-the-way-I-want kind of way.
For a girl who’d been raised almost exclusively with traditional ideas of feminity – and struggled with significant depression and anxiety for not fitting the mold – it was eye-opening and inspiring. I had to take a class from this professor.
There was just one problem: I didn’t really care about Shakespeare. So for my first two years, I mostly watched her from afar and occasionally gathered the nerve to have a conversation with her. I was like a star-struck girl who finds herself continually running into her favorite celebrity.
Then course requirements forced my hand. My college required the completion of a senior project to graduate, and (regardless of post-college plans) every junior and senior had to take seminars to prepare for graduate-level study and the creation of this project. Professors had the final say on the rosters for their seminars, and they tended to give priority for senior seminars to students who’d been with them at the junior level. I was determined to get into Professor M’s senior seminar, so I resigned myself to a junior seminar in Shakespeare.
I got lucky: that year, Professor M decided to debut “Bad Shakespeare,” which approached Shakespeare studies from an entirely new and challenging direction. It turned out to be one of the best classes I ever took.
Everything my fellow students had said about her was right. She was one of the leading scholars in her field, but she made it clear that she intended to learn from us as well as teach us. She was also incredibly witty and warm-hearted – when my beloved grandmother died my senior year and I burst into tears in Professor M’s office, she had just the right words of sympathy.
In her personal life, she defied many of the conventions I knew. Her husband was the one with the lesser degree. They were, by choice, the parents of just one child, and he was the primary parent-on-call. Professor M nevertheless had a close relationship with her daughter and was raising her to be just as smart and self-possessed as she was.
I’m sure she wasn’t perfect. She occasionally had flashes of temper, and she had a tinge of the over-confidence that can come from being at the top of your field.
But all in all, she gave me a glimpse of what was possible: the coupling of a successful career with a happy marriage and motherhood, strength in my own identity, and satisfaction in the work of the mind. Her example has hovered in my mind as inspiration anytime I’ve prepared to step outside the realm of what’s comfortable or familiar to me as a woman.
She died 11 years ago of cancer at the age of just 51. I was eight months pregnant at the time and unable to attend the memorial, but I heard from fellow alumni that the tributes were wonderful. I remember feeling crushed by the thought that future generations of students had lost the opportunity to learn from her.
But maybe they hadn’t. Some of Professor M’s students have gone on to become teachers, professors, and scholars in their own right. I’m sure they’ve carried pieces of her with them into their own classrooms, so that her legacy is still active. I know she still impacts me and, through me, my daughter. I’m grateful she was part of my life at a pivotal time – I wouldn’t be me without her.