Living in the library

the ones that got away: apr.
Stacks at Davis Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (research for my thesis, circa 2009).

Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.

We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)

I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.

Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.

I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”

Mercy and misogyny

Cherry tree in April

The other day, I glimpsed the profile of a young man who was the spitting image of a freckled fundamentalist boy from my childhood. I blanched and suddenly felt a spasm of terror. It wasn’t this boy, grown up (ostensibly because this boy still lives in the basement of his parents’ house), but I was still shaken. On the whole, I had a very happy childhood, and my parents are these lovely, fun human beings, but I dislike being reminded of the community I was raised in: the fundamentalist homeschooling enclave.

Primarily, when I remember that time, I recall the crushing sensation of misogyny. Of existing in a network of people in which you have no agency on account of your gender.

To list all of the overt and subtle misogyny I faced as a homeschooled girl would be exhausting. The anecdotes and comments still rise to the surface, however, in my daily life, even though I now feel so personally and ideologically removed from that community. Being told, by an adult man, that I was projecting sexual promiscuity because I wore lipstick to church once. When a young man, just two years older than me, told me that I ought to take his plate after he finished eating, because that was my job, as a docile, submissive woman. Reading comments from two fathers of my friends, on my teenaged blog, that I was a handmaiden of the devil and an agent of whoredom for writing that my friend should not be imprisoned at home by her father for 40 days for hugging her boyfriend. Countless remarks about how I should dress, how I should act, how I should submit to and serve men and boys.

My parents, thankfully, did not force this attitude on us. I wore power suits and heels so that I could tower over the scrawny boys in debate league. My sister was a champion in hockey (arguably one of the least traditionally feminine sports). But there were still vestiges of this pressure at home, to be the good, quiet Christian woman — even though my mother modeled leadership and authority, divorced from male control, on a daily basis. My sisters and I all turned out to be independent, confident feminists, because that is what my mother is, even if she would never call herself that.

Gender discrimination is the only discrimination I’ve experienced, and so I cling to it, like a bitter badge of honor. I swap horror stories with other women. I delight in making eyes widen at parties with tales of indignities from my strongly patriarchal past.

I have become appallingly sensitive to misogynistic attitudes in other people, in art, in culture. Like my fearful German shepherd, my hackles go up at the first hint of danger and disapprobation.

If no one’s ever despised you for your sex, it is difficult to care about sexism because it is necessarily foreign to you.

Remembering this helps me have mercy on men who don’t think feminism is needed or that women have enough rights already. Most likely, these men have never had anyone oppress them because they were male; the very notion is unfathomable to them. No one has ever told them that, merely because they were born male, they are less intelligent, incapable of leadership, intended to be subservient, or a sex object open to public derision and comment. It is therefore difficult for many men to be empathetic with women on this front.

Lately, however, I have been wondering, what is the point? What is the spiritual fruit of this feeling of having escaped? What heart-based good can experiencing and enduring discrimination yield?

I think I am finally sensing the beginning of such fruit in my life. It is the first time I have been able to say the word mercy in conjunction with the men, both known and unknown, who have belittled me. I probably won’t ever forget the comments and attitudes espoused by the homeschool patriarchs in my past life, but with this added understanding, I can forgive. And that is surely a place to start.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 3)

The Weird World of Homeschool Debate

When I was in eighth grade, my mother thought a speech and debate club would be the solution to my entrenched shyness.

I remember feeling gripped by panic and nausea, sitting in the parking lot before the first meeting. I refused to even enter the building. But she made me go in, and I am thankful that she did. Against my will, speech and debate turned me into a confident young person and a passable public speaker. Team policy debate eventually became the consuming feature of my high school life.

There is a nationwide league of homeschool debate, and I think it still exists today. It has the word “Christian” in its name, so it’s for the wide swath of the homeschool population, which just so happens to be middle-class, conservative evangelicals. There were tournaments held around the country, culminating in Nationals, which generally met at whatever Christian college could be coerced to take us for a week. It was a convention of very high-level dorks. So many dorks. Of which I was definitely one.

One of my favorite realizations is that my first debate partner and I ran a very liberal case, despite the overwhelming right-wing leanings of our league. We wanted to return the Black Hills to the Sioux tribe, a proposition that was backed by Sen. Bill Bradley and, as you can imagine, was not popular at all with our extremely conservative judges. We lost a lot. We ourselves self-identified as young Republicans, and yet we never even considered how liberal our case was. It simply appealed to us because it was right and just.

Being in the debate world was the first time I got attention from older boys. I’m not sure why, because I had braces, a triangle of frizzy hair, and weighed all of 80 pounds. But they’d invite me to sit at their table between rounds and ask me what I had been researching and whether I’d read any good books lately. I just muttered and mumbled, sitting there in a perfect shade of crimson, wondering what interesting thing I could possibly say to them.

I went to Nationals once, at Liberty University, and it was a mostly miserable experience (except that I got to meet Lauren, which was a highlight). I was too nervous to eat and too appalled by all of the Liberty paraphernalia (e.g., Falwell’s clothes in glass cases) to enjoy myself. I was so sick of all of these homeschoolers that, on the third day, I moaned to my mother and grandparents, who had come to cheer me on, “I just want to get OUT of here and hang out with some heathen public-schoolers!” They laughed kindly at me, but they didn’t grasp the depth of my misery. Mom wanted to fix me up with this adorable, very short boy with brilliant blue eyes, but his younger brother and I became friends instead. My debate partner and I only won half of our rounds, and I was just happy to come home.

I “coached” younger debaters for a few years, which made me feel proud and maternal, even if the kids didn’t really learn anything. I was very organized, though. I always had very neatly printed handouts. But the kids were all pretty miserable public speakers.

During my last year, my sister and I teamed up. My mother encouraged me to partner with her, for which I had to decline the offer of the cutest homeschooled boy in the entire southeast (I think literally), which made me bitter for a while, but Kelsey and I became a rather excellent team. We always wore heels (which made us approach 6 feet) and pantsuits. We won Regionals, against a male team. People told me later that the only reason we won was because the five-judge panel had three men on it, who had all voted for us. Thanks for your vote of confidence in our reasoning abilities! Clearly, we only won because we had boobs.

I quit debate after that tournament, with a bad taste in my mouth, and even though I missed the nerdy thrill of a perfectly executed cross-examination, I was happy to be done. I was ready to enter the “real world,” e.g., a public university, and leave it all behind.



A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 2)

After our glorious, innocent, hands-on childhood, we were thrown into another sphere of homeschooling: the new, larger co-op.

A “co-op” is another one of those homeschool phrases that mimics hippie culture; in homeschooling, a co-op refers to this learning-share community, in which different moms teach different subjects to a class of children (rather than having the kids at home all the time). We’d meet once or twice a week for classes on various subjects, generally in the basement of whichever Baptist church we could coerce to let us use their space for a minimal sum.

This was a different batch of children, and we were often surprised by them. But we adapted. Because when you’re homeschooled, you have an extremely high level of tolerance for weirdness. Because you’re all weird. And you don’t really know how weird you are.

Because I am still marginally acquainted with some of these people, here is a heavily truncated list of things I remember:

  • There was this high-strung sibling pair who were loud and pious and avid fans of WWF wrestling. They made biblical stop-action movies with Legos in their basement. They might still.
  • Being told by a boy that the gates of heaven were closed to me because I didn’t read the KJV, the only inspired Word of God.
  • A girl whose mother claimed she was a mathematical genius, although we saw no evidence of this genius in other areas.
  • A sister who piously covered her brother’s eyes any time someone kissed on TV. This same brother would spy on us while we were having sleepovers and tattle on his mother about my licentious attire (e.g., a tank top).
  • The electricity went out during class one afternoon, and a girl claimed it was the work of the devil, who didn’t want us to be educated. I thought it was a pretty clever ploy to get us out of taking a test.
  • At a restaurant, a saintly girl once took the plate of this boy, who presumed himself to be the melancholy priest of our social circle. He looked at me and said, “You should do that for me more often.” My seething rage knew no bounds. (I mean, really. Is it any surprise that I became such an unapologetic feminist?)
  • A boy who talked a big game about his athletic ability, even though we girls could outclass him on the frisbee field every time.
  • A girl who was not permitted to learn how to drive or attend college, because those things were for men. She was supposed to wait at home for a husband. But… she was homeschooled… and they all went to a home church. I guess they just assumed she would marry one of her brothers?
  • A friend who was put under house arrest for 40 days on a diet of rice and water by her father, who heard about her hugging her boyfriend in a parking lot. I was enraged and wrote a blog post decrying her unjust treatment (yes, I was an angry little blogger, even back then), which her father and some other fathers read. They denounced me as a harlot and a sinner in the comments section. My parents heard about this pettiness and instead of disciplining me, they called these fathers idiots and cowards. I wrote my friend a letter every day for those 40 days, encouraging her to be strong. I don’t know if her father ever let her read them.
  • A group of cute and obedient sisters who wore ankle-length dresses to run the mile and practice calisthenics. They were a scene straight out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. We felt bad for them, but they never complained. Our mothers held them up to us as examples of chastity and purity. But we still got to wear shorts.

I maintain a fondness for all of these characters, because they were my childhood friends. We saw each other every week, exchanged letters, threw weird, retro (as in, Revolutionary War-retro) parties. I think of them from time to time and wonder what they are doing. Mercifully, being off Facebook now means I don’t know and can only imagine. My imagination sometimes runs wild.



A homeschooler’s memoirs (Part 1)

The early days of our homeschooled life were quiet and idyllic. We spent a large portion of our week with just one other family. We practiced a Montessori-esque curriculum with them that was very hands-on, arts driven, and test free. It was very happy and holistic and hippie.

Our lessons were divided into monthly or semi-monthly “unit studies,” into which all of our learning was channeled. Our first unit study was on horses, because I was 6 and obsessed with them, and so we studied science through horse anatomy, literature through horse books, history through history’s famous horses (O, mighty Bucephalus!), and so on.

There were four kids in the other family and four of us; between us, we had a kid in every grade at one stage (1st through 8th grades). We all paired off and became the deepest of friends.

At lunch time, our mothers would lock us out of the house and tell us to go do something for an hour. We’d disappear into the woods or run off to play in the creek. Rebecca and I, the eldest pair, would scheme about ways to taunt and torment our sisters. We once lured Rachel and Kelsey into a shed and locked them in it for the better part of an hour. At their house, we’d sneak food through the fence to the neglected cocker spaniel who was always grateful for any human contact. We often discussed how we would dog-nap the spaniel and bring him to live with us. At our house, we’d take our lunches out to the walking trails and forbid any of our siblings to follow us. As the eldest pair, our choice of lunch spot took precedence over the younger one’s wishes. We created a code language that we used to communicate with each other in class. Later, we received a handwritten missive from Rachel, who said that our behavior was hurtful and exclusionary, arguing that she and Kelsey found it rude that we’d communicate in a secret language.

Jonathan and Grace, the pair third in line, were rebellious and mismatched. They resented the other one’s sex, for it made a less comfortable pairing, as the rest of us were matched neatly (Rebecca and Abby, Rachel and Kelsey, and Zach and Sam). Grace was either forced into a loner position or constantly vying to earn the affection and attention of the other sister pairs. Jonathan was just a wild child. He once dragged a bar stool over to a pair of French doors leading to my father’s studio, and, having stolen a bottle of shampoo from my parent’s bathroom, poured the entire contents of the bottle down the French doors. Just because he could.

We practiced Irish dancing in their living room, and Rebecca and Rachel always danced the male part, because they were so much bigger and stronger than us waif-like Farsons. Rebecca would pick me up and literally fling me across the room. I learned to always stick my landing.

To teach us about electricity, our mothers had us build functional lighthouses out of papier-mâché and wires, with tiny light bulbs installed in the top of our towers, which rested on salt-plaster bases. Jonathan quickly lost interest and took to frying ant hills with a magnifying glass, in a very archetypal boy-child fashion.

Rebecca and Rachel shared a double bed, which rested on stacks of books, because they didn’t have a bedframe. We had to jump on the bed with the greatest precision and care, lest the mattress collapse and accidentally trap a child. Sometimes, we’d carefully lift a book from the stack and read it to each other. We adored the American Girl series (and our corresponding dolls, our greatest treasures), Jane Austen, and the Brontës.

We put on scores of plays together, which we forced our parents and brothers to watch. Some of them were of our own creation; many were again from the American Girl series. I was always the director and an unbearable dictator about my role. I also took it upon myself to memorize everyone else’s lines and would stage-whisper the cues to everyone during the production, should they falter even for a second. I didn’t remember that I did this until I saw snippets of a home video of one of these productions. There I was in a prairie skirt with my plaited hair, whispering the entire play to my frustrated and confused co-actors.

Then Rebecca went to high school at a private Christian school. It was devastating to me. Gradually, all of her siblings followed her to this school, and we remained homeschooled. An era had ended, and I do not think we ever had such blissfully naive days again.

In these early years, we did not really have many other friends, and we earnestly felt that we did not need them. Our universe was happy and self-contained.

Monday Snax

Quiet Sunday
Sunday at home, with all the new books on the shelves.

SUCH a peaceful and pleasant weekend! On Saturday, I went to the annual library book sale at Gordon Avenue and was soon joined by Celeste, Sarah, and Laura. I’ve been to a lot of book sales in my day, but let me tell you: This one takes the cake. High-quality, just about brand new books in every imaginable genre for a few dollars? This is my version of heaven. I walked away with 32 beautiful new books and paid a mere $30 for all of them. Sunday morning at the SPCA and then an afternoon lazing around the house due to a pulled hamstring from overly rambunctious pups. We watched The Fellowship of the Ring and we are not going to apologize for it. (I forgot how LONG that movie is…)


My Parents Were Home Schooling Anarchists. A piece in the New York Times by Margaret Heidenry about what it was like to grow up as a homeschooler before it was legal. It’s like The Glass Castle from a homeschooling-centric perspective. Extremely fascinating! It’s so interesting how much the homeschooling movement has changed. When my parents decided to homeschool in 1988, it still wasn’t legal in many states, but in 1993, it was legal in all 50. Since then, it’s a rising trend, although the dominion has shifted from free-thinking bohemians to very conservative evangelicals. (New York Times)

The Piano Lesson. A memory from Jared Nigro about his piano teacher and an unexpected gift of mercy. (The Hairpin)

Women in War, Women in Peace. A plea to stop thinking about war as a male-only circumstance. Men start wars and men fight them, but we never think about the women left at home to pick up the pieces. (The Atlantic)

Democrats, Republicans Have Mirror-Image Views. Just more proof that politics are pointless. (The Atlantic)

Black Cat Auditions in Hollywood, 1961. There were a lot of eager women trying to make their black cats into movie stars in 1961, apparently. Very entertaining series of photos. I feel like training a cat to act would be akin to training a fish to sing. (Retronaut)

How To Name Your First Novel. A helpful series of formulas for naming that novel you’ve been working on. (NPR)

Collection of Rejected Titles for Classic Books. Would you have read The Great Gatsby if it had been titled Trimalchio in West Egg? Yeah. I didn’t think so. Good saves from editors and publishers alike, who usually picked the better title for the soon-to-be classic. (Flavorwire)

The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. These days, I don’t make time for re-reading anything, which is something of a shame. I’ll probably start re-reading in my middle age. Right now, there’s too much still to be read. I do miss the distinct pleasure of returning to a beloved book, however. I bought the lovely and widely acclaimed Pevear/Volonkhosky translation of Anna Karenina at the aforementioned book sale, however, and I may have to return to that soon… (The Millions)

Great Painter: Elizabeth Peyton. Cate reviews Peyton’s work, which I really love. Had never heard of her before, but I’m glad I have now! (The Charlotte)

An Afternoon with Theresa di Scianni. This looks like such a peaceful, pleasant place to live. (Petits Papiers)

Says the Hummer in the Land of the Hybrid. A mother’s reflection on having four kids when having four kids is not especially chic or socially acceptable. I thought of this in relation to my own mother, toting the four of us around in “inconvenient” places. (Girl’s Gone Child)

Misty Manley: Fake Anything Designs. Hot ham water! Night cheese! (Design Work Life)

Beat the Winter Hair Blues. My hair gets kind of gross and limp in the winter. Good tips, especially if you’re prone to splurging on hair care products (which I’m not). (She Lets Her Hair Down)

What Do French Women Have That We Don’t? A lot, apparently. When it comes to fashion, style, and beauty, don’t we all just want to be French deep down? (HiP Paris)

Hot-button issues

I love finding people who keep their Issues and Causes very close to themselves; the people who start long, passionate conversations if you are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to mention a word that triggers them. You said the word “corn” and all of the sudden you’re locked in an hour-long conversation about the evil machinations of the FDA and big agribusiness. I like finding these people because they make me feel a bit less alone. They remind me that maybe I’m not the only person who has to rein herself in (often unsuccessfully) during conversations.

I probably care too much about things that I don’t know that much about. I was realizing this today. I am too quick to express my quickly formed opinions.

And so I write this list to caution you. These are the things that could trigger a brutally long and vehement conversation with me. You have been warned.

  • Any permutation on the topic of dogs. (Dog breeds, training, health, adoption, behavior, psychology, etc.)
  • Why Ayn Rand isn’t worth a second of anyone’s time.
  • Law school.
  • Homeschooling.
  • Mega-churches fixated on growth.
  • Reproductive rights.
  • Why paper and ink books still matter.
  • Christians judging other Christians for being on birth control.
  • Sororities and fraternities.
  • What I’ve been reading lately.
  • Anti-women policies and practices of conservatives.
  • Childhood obesity.
  • Dolphins.
  • Underpaid teachers.

Anyone else? Do you have “hot-button issues” that invariably embroil you in desperate, heated discussions–almost against your will? I hope I’m not the only one…

Tell me something I don’t already know

Source: Content in a Cottage

Like most people, I love reading things that tell me what I want to hear. I love blabbing to people about “this great article I just read” that bolsters what I already believe about politics, food, religion, or dog training. It’s obnoxious. But, simply, it’s gratifying to see someone else espouse your deeply held convictions out on the great plains of cyberspace. This is why I loved reading the hilarious memoir-like piece about a nightmarish trip to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan in the New York Times Magazine last week, “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!” One of my principal beliefs is that Disney World is a materialistic swamp of America’s lowest common denominators and one of my top life goals is to never go there. Sullivan’s article simply reinforced this conviction.

As enjoyable as it was to read that essay and others like it, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not good for my brain–or my spirit–to read only things that I already believe. Sue Halpern’s article in the New York Review of Books, “Mind Control and the Internet,” helped bring me around to this moment of enlightenment. Halpern’s article is a terrifying one. In it, she explains how, right now, Google and Amazon are creating a detailed profile of you and figuring out just what it is that you want to hear, read, and buy. Through complex algorithms, which I do not understand, Google also tailors your search results and your e-mail ads to your interests, a fact which most people now recognize. As soon as you start telling your friends that you’re engaged via e-mail, you start seeing all of these weird “discount wedding jewelry” ads pop up.

We’ve come to placidly accept the fact that Google is watching us. While this Big Brother factor is creepy enough on its own, Halpern’s article posits that the more insidious consequence of being profiled by Google is the fact that we are sheltering ourselves from the marketplace of ideas. The Internet is becoming less democratic. Google figures out what you want to hear and it keeps telling you those things. As Halpern suggests,

a search for proof about climate change will turn up different results for an environmental activist than it would for an oil company executive and, one assumes, a different result for a person whom the algorithm understands to be a Democrat than for one it supposes to be a Republican. (One need not declare a party affiliation per se—the algorithm will prise this out.) In this way, the Internet, which isn’t the press, but often functions like the press by disseminating news and information, begins to cut us off from dissenting opinion and conflicting points of view, all the while seeming to be neutral and objective and unencumbered by the kind of bias inherent in, and embraced by, say, the The Weekly Standard or The Nation.

This is scary to me. It is also scary for the American public sphere as a whole, which seems to get more polarized every day. FOX News is proof enough that we can no longer bear to listen to opinions that differ from our own. I think that’s a very dangerous state for any supposedly democratic nation to be in.

I think back to my mom and the free-spirited way in which she gave us kids access to information. She turned me loose in the library as soon as I could read. Unlike most of her conservative, homeschooling peers, she never censored my reading habits. She even taught us about evolution, God forbid! I read everything I could get my hands on. I will always remember my mom’s quiet and humble defense to the other moms who were appalled at what she was letting her innocent daughters read. “If we think we know the truth,” she would say, “why are we so afraid of untruth?”

Her defense is more applicable to those Christians who were afraid that their children would lose faith in God if they saw proof that seven-day creationism wasn’t true. And yet I think I see it in myself today. What am I so afraid of? It is far more fun to read things that tell me what I already believe. But it is better for me, as a thinking, developing human, to encounter some disagreement, some divergent opinions. To understand why, for instance, some people actually and sincerely love Disney World.  I’ll never know unless I start reading.

This is a roundabout and self-important way to tell you that I’m trying to read more nonfiction. Courtney asked me about what nonfiction I was reading lately and I realized that I’d only been reading dog books. It’s time to challenge the brain, AFP. So I just started The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, in which Wright argues that God has been evolving with the human race and is only getting nicer over time. It’s interesting, for sure. I also write to ask you for nonfiction recommendations to add to my already burgeoning list. Anything important I should read that I also might fundamentally disagree with? And no, Twilight does not count.

Week 8: Thank-you notes to teachers

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

This week’s challenge was inspired by blogger Erin Loechner, who challenged herself to write thank-you notes to 20 memorable and inspirational teachers. Teachers don’t get nearly enough credit in this country and it’s a perpetual mystery to me. Good teachers are responsible for most of the successes in our lives and yet we rarely remember to go back and thank them. In my own small way, that’s what I attempted to do this week.

Teacher 1. Mary Sellers

Mrs. Sellers taught my online AP English Composition class when I was a shy and yet pompous 9th-grader. When you’re homeschooled, you get to learn in a lot of non-traditional ways and online classes were one of those ways for me. In many ways, it was a strange dynamic, but Mrs. Sellers always managed to make our web classroom warm, friendly, and encouraging. She invested so much time in us as students and her hospitality was extraordinary. Mrs. Sellers stayed in touch with many of us even after we had finished her class and I was always impressed by her generosity, particularly as she was already busy with homeschooling her own children.

Teacher 2. Marc Cohen

Professor Cohen is important to me in many ways: He convinced me to be an English major and he introduced me to the great literary love of my life, Virginia Woolf. He taught my Intro to 18th-20th Century British Lit. class during my first semester as a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unlike many professors these days, Marc Cohen actually cared about teaching–and he was very, very good at it. He was creative, encouraging, and enthusiastic and I’m so thankful I was able to have him as a teacher when I arrived at Carolina. I also really appreciated that his syllabus was uniquely focused on great British female authors; we only read women novelists for the novels in that class, which was practically unheard of, especially in the British Lit classes. I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time and I fell in love.

Teacher 3. Bill Cloud

Professor Cloud scared a lot of us in the Journalism School. He well over six feet tall and he spoke with a deep, intimidating voice and he liked to yell at you when you mixed up “illicit” and “elicit.” He once gave me a 50 on a paper because I spelled Brussels sprouts “Brussel sprouts.” I will never make that mistake again for as long as I live! But for all of his aggressive teaching methods, Professor Cloud is largely responsible for getting me a job. He prompted me to apply for the Dow Jones News Fund internship, which I never would have considered without his encouragement. Because of him, I spent an absolutely amazing summer working as a copy editor at the Denver Post. He’s served as my academic reference on numerous occasions and I can’t say enough how grateful I am for his influence. Professor Cloud has been an invaluable career resource for me and for many others, and that’s why I will always recommend him to other J-School students, even though he can make you cry in class.

Teacher 4. George Lensing

Gracious, eloquent, humble, and endlessly fascinating, Professor George Lensing taught the best class I ever took at Carolina, 20th-century poetry. I didn’t really get poetry until I heard Professor Lensing talk about it. We covered a few poems in each class, but we really covered them; we’d spend an hour talking about two lines of Robert Lowell. And then he’d start class with the story of having lunch with Elizabeth Bishop in the Brazilian jungle. Or when he had to squire Robert Frost around UNC’s campus for the day. No big deal. In my opinion, he’s the gem of the UNC English Department and it will be a sad day when he retires (which I heard rumored may be happening sooner than later). He also urged me to write an honors thesis, which was a tortured decision. But with Professor Lensing on my team, I felt like I could do anything.

Teacher 5. Erin Carlston

Professor Carlston was another very intimidating professor. She knew everything; she was fluent in most romance languages; she studied at Harvard and Yale; and she had read every important book–twice. She also didn’t let students get away with crappy writing. You had to labor to pass her class–but if and when you did, you felt like you’d reached the pinnacle of academic success. I took Introduction to Modernism with her and met many previously unread authors that came to be listed among my favorites. After that year ended, I decided to write my thesis on Virginia Woolf and timidly approached her to ask if she’d be my thesis adviser. She graciously replied that she would. Over the next year, Professor Carlston spent countless hours meeting with me, hashing out ideas, and reading and editing my often embarrassingly immature drafts. The slightest compliment from her–“This is a nice sentence.”–could make my entire week. You always knew that she meant exactly what she said and she would never give you false encouragement. She had a million things going on when she was helping me with my thesis–between finishing her own book, teaching a handful of classes, serving on numerous committees, and advising another undergrad thesis on Woolf–and yet when you met with her, you felt like your work was the most important thing on her agenda. Her advice and her edits undoubtedly made me a better writer and my gratitude to her is boundless.

Teacher 6. Mary-Lynn Whitman

I think we can all identify that one teacher who, early on, saw potential in you when no one else really did. Mrs. Whitman was that person for me. I was a shy, arrogant, and self-conscious little girl when I first met Mrs. Whitman in an art class that I took with her son, Patrick. She was bright, intellectual, and full of enthusiasm and knowledge. Even though she was already busy homeschooling her kid, she decided to take me under her wing. Her former life as a children’s book editor equipped her to teach me and critically evaluate my bombastic attempts at writing when I was in late elementary school and early middle school. I would come to her house with a few essays and she would spend hours with me talking about how I could improve and how I could become an even better writer. She saw promise in me, that there was hope that I could be a better writer and a better human, when most just saw a snotty and bossy kid. I am humbled by her attention, even now.

Teacher 7. Teresa Farson

How do you begin to thank the person who taught you everything? My mom gave up her whole life to teach the four of us. She wanted the best for us in every area of our lives and sacrificed constantly so that we could succeed. In our childhood, she endeavored to make learning fun, to spark our imaginations and innate curiosity, rather than make learning about conforming to a pre-defined mold and filling out blanks on worksheets. As a great advocate of “hands-on learning,” we figured out early on that there was no division between Life and School for us; the two were the same and every moment was an educational one. We studied botany on nature walks; animal biology when she took us to the race track; art through our monthly visits to the Mint Museum of Art. I didn’t understand why my neighborhood friends hated school so much. School was everywhere; it was our entire lives. Mom also instilled in us the principle that we were primarily responsible for our educations. If you were not educated, it was no one’s fault but your own. Many people ask me how it was possible that I could succeed at a university after being homeschooled for 12 years. Wasn’t I afraid? Wasn’t I unsure how to adapt to a classroom? Did I even know how to take tests? My transition to college was actually very smooth. Because I had been responsible for my education for years, the freshman concerns of self-control and time management were disciplines that I had already been practicing since I was young. I believe my mom is Superwoman and I don’t know, even now, how she did it all–and how she still does it (with one kid still at home). I know a thank-you note won’t cut it for all of the gratitude I owe her. But, Mom, for everything: THANKS.

Next week, I will be trying to study for the GRE every day! I’m not planning on taking it any time soon, but I go back and forth on the grad school conundrum almost daily and this is my haphazard attempt to add some discernment to my life. Until then!