No One Ever Comes Here
I’m posting early this week because I’ll be in West Virginia visiting two campuses of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, a land of mountains and switchbacks and steep roads that don’t run straight. On Monday, I’ll be talking to the students there—students who have been reading my work—even though it means I won’t be here at Ohio State for the year-end English Department Awards Ceremony. I’ll have to ask my students to forgive me and to know that I’ll be with them in spirit to celebrate the good work they’ve done. I’ll have to ask them to understand why I have to go to West Virginia.
I have to go because I started my postsecondary education at a community college in Illinois. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but my first assignment for the school newspaper was to interview the biology professor who was responsible for the annual white squirrel count in that town where albino squirrels were favored citizens. I was a shy boy, and it was painful and awkward for me to arrange and conduct that interview. I don’t know why I’d never considered the fact that a journalist would actually have to talk to people. What I really wanted to do was to stay in my room and write. I ended up taking every English and literature class that the college offered. I left the student newspaper and involved myself with the student literary journal. For two years, I read and wrote, and I never met a working, publishing writer. No visiting writers came to my school. No writers gave readings in that small town. I never had the presence of professionals to show me what might be possible for me.
So when a former student of mine who now teaches at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College invited me to pay a visit, I couldn’t say no. I remember too well what it was like to be a shy kid in a small, culturally disadvantaged place, wondering what might be out there in the larger world. And this is what I hope my Ohio State students will understand as their talents continue to flourish—the importance of never losing touch with the people they were once upon a time; the importance of sharing themselves with others.
My former student in West Virginia shared this story with me. A local attorney stopped one of her students on the street after seeing a poster advertising my visit in the local library. He asked her to pass along a thank you to me for coming to Wyoming County. “No one ever comes here to talk to us,” he said.
And that’s exactly why I’m going. I’m going because, as Stephen King says in 11/23/63, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” To my Ohio State students: Your professional lives are beginning. You’re about to do all sorts of wonderful things. Celebrate your victories, but don’t let them take you away from the people you are. Likewise, don’t let your disappointments make you strangers to yourselves. You are people of good hearts. As your talents continue to develop, remember to reach out to the world. When someone calls, go. You never know what a difference you might make for someone if you’re there.
Love this …
Thank you, Jolene!
There are few with better hearts than yours. Just saying. And, thank you for coming to Ashland last summer.
Joy, I could probably come up with a few folks who would disagree, but thank you so much for saying so. I loved being with you all at Ashland last summer.
Lee: Those students, whether they know it or not, are about to receive a wonderful gift. And maybe, just maybe, the seeds of writerly wisdom you bestow will cause a young writer’s story or a book to grow and blossom.
I’m really looking forward to this trip, Roberta. Thanks for thinking of me as I travel.
You are a man of good heart. I grew up in Louisville in a Catholic neighborhood where you were encouraged to be a nurse or teacher or nun. I met my first real writer at college. I worked two jobs to put myself through school. Leon Driskell became my mentor and writing teacher during and after college. He was a writer, a title i didn’t claim until my 30th burthday, though I worked as a journalist. All that to say you remind me of Leon in the joy you take in your students’ work and the dedication you have to your work. I am so fortunate to have worked with both of you.
Thank you, Mary Lou. I hope you’re continuing to do well.
Thank you, Lee! I’ll see you tomorrow!
I’ve made it, Anna! Looking forward to meeting you tomorrow.
This will be shared with my students. Hope you keep on doing the doing for the rest of your 120 years.
From your lips to God’s ear, Mort! Thanks for sharing.
Wonderfully said, Lee- that is, the need to give back, but not to give back in some sanctimonious way or by viewing people in the aggregate, which is what we tend to do when we write a check for some good cause. Get out there, visit communities, talk to people and let the hope that you’ll light a path for somebody be reason enough to hit the road.
Nicely said, Lee, and even better done.
Your new Late One Night just hit my mailbox; I hope to start it this weekend.
Bill, I hope you enjoy the new book.