Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nobody's God

April 17

I broke my once-a-week posting promise. I hate breaking a promise, including one to myself. The promise to write a post every week was made both to myself and to anyone who reads these. So: to you and to me, I’m sorry.

I didn’t write a post last week because I was busy writing something else–and then beginning to turn it into a performance piece. Here’s what happened.

A couple of months ago, on impulse I submitted a synopsis about a Barnard teacher of mine for a “Moth” presentation scheduled during my upcoming reunion. "The Moth,” as some of you likely know, is a non-profit whose mission is to create storytelling productions in varioud settings. The subject for ours is: someone who was a “Mentor, Muse, or Monster” during our college years. Rosalie Colie was all three to me at Barnard In the long run, she probably had more to do with my becoming a writer than anyone.

On a new impulse, I would like to share her with anyone who reads this post. I’m still working with the producer on what I will present during reunion, but in the final version Miss Colie won’t be different–and neither will I. Here’s where we are now:

I went to a terrific high school. The only hitch was, academic subjects were just stuff you had to get through so you could get on with whatever you came to Performing Arts to perform.

Somehow, there I was at Barnard and in Miss Rosalie Colie’s freshman English class–surrounded –and surrounded is definitely how I felt--by girls who’d attended notoriously good high schools in Brooklyn. Those girls really scared me, towering academic redwoods. The day we got our first test back from Miss Colie, I knew everyone but me would get a good mark. I got a C-minus. No surprise. A girl behind me spoke out. You can’t give me a C-minus—I had a 98.6 average. Wild with relief, I blurted out, I thought 98.6 was temperature.

Mind you, I wasn’t giddy over having company for my own C-minus. Keeping my scholarship was critical. I had to get good grades–or goodbye Barnard.

Next day, I moved up to the front row, put on blinders, paid attention only to what was being said in the front of the room, and for the first time in my life put my mind to work.

Parents’ day arrived. I adored my mother. She was loving, giving, permissive, elegant, and well-educated–she’d earned a doctorate in Russian literature at the University of Kiev. But she was old–sixty that year. And despite her excellent English, she still had a Russian accent. After Miss Colie’s class, she joined the line to speak with Miss Colie. The line moved quickly. Her turn came. The line stopped moving. I watched mesmerized as she and Miss Colie became engrossed in conversation. I had to leave–or miss my next class. That evening, my mother told me Miss Colie was very smart for such a young woman. The next day Miss Colie took me aside to say that my mother was a fascinating woman. Gotcha, Toby.

We had to go to Miss Colie’s office to reclaim our graded papers. About two months into the semester, when I turned up to get a paper on Pere Goriot–yes, I remember which paper it was–I saw at once the upper-right hand corner was empty. There was no grade. Not a good sign. Miss Colie told me to sit. Another not-good sign. I sat. Slowly, she set down a “B,” then added a period. I don’t know how many straight-up B’s Miss Colie was doling out by then, but my guess is, not many. I do know that I saved bus fare home–I floated all the way to Washington Heights.

Miss Colie decided I might be worth mentoring. She gave me a list of books, handwritten on legal-size yellow paper. You need to know these, she said. By then I had a major crush–not on her, on her mind. I vowed silently to read them all–that weekend. A month later, Miss Colie said that if I worked very very hard I might one day write a “real book.” It wasn’t a compliment, it was a challenge. .

That’s how Miss Colie mentored-- through challenging. Meet one challenge, there’d be another. I didn’t have time or energy to resent it.

After Christmas break, Miss Colie was gone. GONE. We were told only that she was ill and we could not contact her. With her physical absence she turned from mentor to muse. Now I pushed me. The level of effort she demanded, I now commanded myself to make. I so wanted her to know how hard I was working anyway. Finally, it came to me how to let her know. If I could somehow win the Gildersleeve Prize, her best friend who also taught at Barnard, would tell her. What a good get-well card winning would make. But could I? There were all those girls-the redwoods. Don’t think about them. Work. I did, and how. And I won the Gildersleeve Prize. A week later, I received a thank you note from Miss Colie.

Sophomore year she was back. Illness had not softened her. Towards me, she was tougher than ever. That spring, she assigned a sonnet to analyze. I don’t like analyzing poetry, gave the task short shrift. When I went to pick up my paper, she literally tossed it across her desk at me. If this was anyone else’s, I’d give it an F, she said. I wish I did not remember this part but I do. I said, So give me an F. She shook her head. Spring break is coming up. You will analyze five sonnets. Have the papers on my desk the day we get back. I did it. For 10 days, I breathed sonnets. I did figure out how to get something out of analyzing a sonnet. But I felt she’d pushed me too hard this time. She probably felt she shouldn’t have had to. For the rest of the semester we spoke in extremely short sentences.

That summer, my mother died. And Barnard, believing in in loco parentis, found a dorm room for me. I was still unpacking my books when I heard scurrying in the hallway and a single sharp knock on my door. Without waiting for a Come in., she did. Wordlessly she looked me over. Then she said, You’re not wearing black. Good! Then: There’s a faculty tea across the street and you’re coming with me. Not a word about our mutual silence of the spring, or what a terrible summer I must have had. She was there, would be there. Pushing hard, she’d have my back. I left the pile of books unshelved and went off with her to tea.


  1. I'm just beginning Colie's Paradoxia Epidemica, a tremendous work of scholarship by all that I've heard and read. But it's Colie herself who's begun to fascinate me lately - her scholarship, her verve, her too-early death. I appreciate your sharing these memories, Colie sounds to have been as tough and dynamic as ever I could have expected.

    1. Have been greatly enjoying her Shakespeare work, and impressed by how personable and distinctive her voice is. I look forward to reading Paradoxia.

  2. I was reading Bloom's, "Influence" when her Shakespeare got cited. I took Science and Imagination in the Renaissance at Iowa with her while she was writing Epidemica. She spoke in great detail of Paradox in Sir Th Browne. It was a great privilege to hear her.