Her name was Nancy Gordon, but most of the students called her “The Little General.” She stood about 5’ even with her 3” alligator shoes on, but when she approached you with “that look” in her eye, she was 10’ tall.
She was the Creative Writing professor at tiny Peters College high atop a rocky butte overlooking the Columbia River. One would think that a creative writing professor would come in a more laid-back package, especially here in the woodsy Northwest: ankle-high Uggs, long granny skirt topped by a Pendleton jacket, and a faraway look in her eye. Not her. Mrs. G resembled a well-dressed but yappy Chihuahua, including the vibrations. Tiny, bony, ferocious. I was always checking to see that she wasn’t nipping at my ankles.
“So, didja hear?” my friend Shannon leaned over to whisper in my ear at the start of Friday morning’s chapel service. I shook my head, mostly to keep her quiet, rather than in reply.
She didn’t get the idea. Her next whisper was louder.
“Mrs. G is leaving.”
This caused a bit of a stir around us, but I don’t think it was because anyone heard what she said; it was just her loud whisper that was annoying.
And shocking. I stared at my friend, thinking I had heard wrong. Her russet curls bounced as she nodded briskly.
“She got fired.”
“Couldn’t,” I whispered back, “she’s tenured.”
That stopped the whispers for the moment, as Shannon digested this. Beneath the singing of “Bless the Lord O My Soul” she started in again.
“Maybe they just said ‘tired’,” she wrinkled her brow, concentrating deeply.
So for the rest of the chapel service, I thought back to the last paper of the semester, an unusual assignment even for Mrs. G.
Although she was known for her imaginative assignments (“I want you to really think” was her explanation—or excuse, you choose) this time she asked the class to select a published critique or review of a literature classic, and critique that—the critique itself, I mean. Then Mrs. G would critique our critique of the critique. It reminded me of facing a mirror and seeing a mirror behind me, mirroring me looking into a mirror, and so on. Did you follow that?
This semester it had a wicked twist. She herself had published a review of C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters” (of all things) which she asked us to write a critique (that is, critique her own review—are you keeping up?) and of course she would then critique our review of her critique. Are you still with me?
Most of us groused and grumbled for several weeks before due date. Some students were quite cranky, although one would think we’d all become used to it by now. I was kind of amused, and thought it would be interesting, if not outright fun.
I did as assigned, and on the due date, was ready with my paper in a nice little folder.
When I saw the folder returned to me looking a bit beat up, I was a little anxious, and in a hurry to find someplace quiet to read her comments—and my grade, of course.
I retreated to one of my favorite spots, a picnic table under an old fir with the best view of the valley below, and fairly isolated from the rest of campus. I opened my folder.
A fat red “A” drew my eyes first. I gulped, then read her comments.
“While I found a few insignificant errors in a bit of complicated syntax, which you’ll see marked below, I found this to be an excellent example of: 1) following the assignment perfectly; 2) reading thoroughly the material you were asked to review; and 3) speaking your mind. I have made a few minor notes in the margins, which I’d like you to consider. However, overall, this was an outstanding piece of writing and thoroughly deserves your grade.”
This brought tears to my eyes. While most students kept their distance from Mrs. G and her alligator shoes, I found her exactness in teaching and expectations to be not harsh, but comforting.
Sort of like Scripture, I knew her commentaries of my papers thus far were meant to help me grow, not restrict me.
Leafing through my folder, I found a small scrap of paper tucked into the spine.
“Have faith in yourself, Ms. Talbot. You’re on the right track. I’ll remember you with fondness and hope.”
“’Bye Mrs. G,” I whispered.
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