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.