The month was September. The year was 1966. For the better part of August I’d been immured in the library at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, sitting on my butt reading my terrified butt off, afraid I’d not be able to cut it in grad school, trying to allay my panic by reading as many of the items on the Master’s Reading List I’d been sent in advance, when my first wife, Barbara, and I were down in Mississippi, getting ready to become Arkies.
When I wasn’t preparing to be a student, I was preparing to be a teacher. We novitiates in the graduate program in English had been working for a couple of weeks with the redoubtable Leo Van Scyoc, who was readying us to go into buildings all over the campus to teach freshman comp classes. Dr. Van Scyoc concluded his tutelage. I thought I was ready.
The day came for me to go teach my first class, which was to meet in the Agronomy building right across the street from Old Main, on the second floor of which the English Department was located.
I crossed the street. I entered the Agronomy building. I approached the door behind which waited my first class. As I neared the threshold, I heard the chattering of frosh.
And I panicked. Two feet from entering, I made a 90 degree turn to the right and walked down the long hall of the first floor of Agronomy. In the middle of the hall, I made a 90 degree turn to the left and exited the building.
I proceeded to walk around it.
As I perambulated the Agronomy building, I wondered what was going to happen to me. I’d been in training to be a teacher, but clearly I couldn’t teach people if I couldn’t enter the area in which they were congregated. And it seemed that I couldn’t.
I wanted to cry.
It seemed I’d come so far. I’d liked reading since I’d been a five-year-old, thickly bespectacled kid. When in my teen years I realized that I was never going to be able to garner a living wage as a baseball pitcher, I decided that a pleasant way to make a modest living would be to work with people on two of my passions, reading and writing, i.e., to be an English teacher.
And I thought I was on the way. I’d done well in college. I’d gotten a good assistantship for graduate school. I was going to have the chance to study words and to think about words and to teach about words all at the same time in a pleasant place in the mountains.
And yet I couldn’t make myself go to class.
The Agronomy Building was a pretty big building. But it wasn’t as big as that walk around it made it feel that day. What a long walk that was!
I reentered the building. I approached the threshold. They were still in there, still chattering. I took a deep breath. I crossed the threshold.
I don’t remember what happened next. I guess everything went okay—if things had gone horribly wrong, surely I would have remembered.
Forty-two years have passed since then. It’s been my great good fortune to enter the huge majority of the classes I’ve taught with relish. There’ve been a few times when I didn’t want to go to class. But there’s not been a time since when I’ve been emotionally unable to cross the threshold. And for that I’m very grateful.