Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Moment I Knew

At the beginning of my collegiate career, I was in awe and simultaneously terrified of my professors. Onto the pedestal of academic superiority I placed them, and there they remained. How did one, in fact, decide to become a professor? And how did one actually go about becoming one? I craved answers to these questions, but remained scared. In fact, I remained so intimidated for the first two years that going to office hours required serious courage. Eventually, I kicked this habit, but I had to come out of my shell first.

As a freshman, I took a 2-unit freshman seminar on Jane Austen with an English Professor Emeritus named Morton Paley. As one might imagine, it was a seminar of 15 girls and one man, and to top it off, he looked like an adorable, ancient Santa Clause. I loved the seminar so much it was my favorite class of my first semester at Berkeley and I anticipated its arrival every Wednesday afternoon.

During the course of the semester, each student was obliged to give one presentation on a given topic surrounding Austen or the era in which she wrote, but alas, being the natural overachiever, when Professor Paley asked for a volunteer to give the final presentation, as there was an even number of students and an odd number of topics, I raised my hand. This meant I went to his office twice to discuss matters with him, and needless to say, it scared the living day lights out of me. I wondered why a lauded dinosaur of a professor would want to speak to a peon.

My initiative caught Professor Paley's eye, I assume, because I received an e-mail invitation in December of 2006 to work for him the following Spring semester as a research assistant. At the time, he'd been at work on a book tracing the relationship between the English Romantic poets and their artist contemporaries, which was to be published by Oxford University Press. Knowing very little about what I was signing up for, I agreed. We met that January in his office on the third floor of Wheeler Hall. He explained the project, filled out paper work to get me a Library proxy card to check out books in his name, as well as a copy card so I could successfully copy articles and microfilm. Every week we'd either meet in his office or he would e-mail his requests to me. He eventually gave me a key to his office so I could deposit my findings for him.

I remember lucidly the first time I entered his office with my own key. It was a late afternoon, and the sun was dipping below the thatch of pine trees near Sather Gate, whose tips I could see from his office window. Curtains of dust hung in the air, made visibly by the sunlight, and there was a thick sent of must. I inhaled the smell, but felt like an intruder. I placed a stack of materials on Professor Paley's already overloaded desk, saw his notes in ultra fine and impeccable cursive, and laid my backpack on his chair. I closed the door.

Alone in Professor Paley's office in 335 Wheeler Hall, I stood across from shelves and shelves of books. As I moved closer, I noticed titles with his name on them, old books with wearing covers that, as I perused them, I realized had been published nearly thirty years prior. I let my fingers wander the book spines, and inexplicably, I began to cry.

I began to cry because at that moment, I understood that this man had dedicated his entire life to one small, small portion of English literature. I understood that for him it was an intense, burning love worthy of a lifetime of devotion. I comprehended the amount of energy and the years he had spent doing so. And I cried because I thought it was beautiful.

I think in that moment, I knew I too wanted to join academia, wanted to devote myself to something I loved as much as I understood that Professor Paley had given his life to the Romanticists, to the written word. I think right then and there I knew I wanted to be a professor, but was too scared to admit it. After all, it took me two more years and two unsatisfying law internships to relinquish the thought of going to law school.

And I suppose that is the moment I knew. It was the moment I reaffirmed forever that my life is to be a life of words, of their consummation, and of their pleasure, as both an academic and in my own way, whether published or not, as an artist.

I've known all along.

1 comment:

  1. Brought tears to my eyes. So glad to hear that you're doing well over there in France, living your dream... and to hear you tell it, being the belle of the ball while you're at it!