Tapping gently at her door, fate beckoned me in
Some sage once observed that your whole life really comes down to just a handful of moments, and it has taken me most of mine to recognize the truth in that.
A younger, brasher me would have argued fiercely that we all have free will to do as we will, but now that I am in the home stretch of my allotted years — whatever they may be — I am much more a believer in the role of fate.
Maybe the Calvinist concept of predestination has some merit after all, although I still try hard to resist the tenet that holds that most people are awful, except the “elect” chosen by God — and they’re not so great either.
Not one of these thoughts troubled my mind in the summer of 1991 as I drove my little gray Toyota Corolla over Balsam and into Jackson County in the direction of Southwestern Community College, where I had a 9 a.m. interview scheduled with the division chair of the General Education department, which was about to be renamed Arts and Sciences in keeping with the emergence of the freshly minted College Transfer program.
I was wearing the only suit I owned, a dignified dark gray, and a tie that had black and rust orange stripes. My dress shoes were new and half a size too small, tight and utterly inflexible. The Corolla did not have an air conditioner, which is not ideal when it’s July and you are in a suit and you are already feeling the pressure of the biggest interview of your life. I had all the windows rolled down, hoping the wind would keep me from drenching my suit and appearing for my interview as if I had chosen to swim rather than drive over.
I wasn’t even sure I should be here anyway. I was burdened with the stereotype of community colleges in those days, that whatever English classes they might offer were there primarily for the faculty to teach people who wanted to be welders or beauticians how to fill out a job application and write a rudimentary cover letter.
Would I ever really be able to teach students about the miraculous stories of Flannery O’Connor, or the mind-altering poetry of Wallace Stevens? It didn’t seem likely, but I needed a job and people had been telling me I really needed to apply to Southwestern Community College before I even knew where it was on the map.
When I got there, I drove through the entrance and followed the signs up the hill until I found the right building. I headed straight to the men’s room to compose myself, dabbing the sweatier parts of me with a fistful of brown paper towels, then trying to dry and arrange my hair as best I could. I loosened my tie — nope, too casual — and then tightened it again.
I found the right floor and office number, expecting to meet the division chair, a woman named Jean Ellen Magers, but I met a different woman who chatted amiably with me for 20 minutes or so while I filled out some paperwork. She told me they were desperate for adjunct faculty in the English department, and I would likely be assigned as many classes as I could handle for fall semester.
“Are you my supervisor?” I asked, causing her to break out laughing.
“Lord no,” she said. “It’s time for you to meet Jean Ellen now.”
She sent me down the hill to the brand new Allied Health building, which was huge and gleaming in the hot morning sun. Just the short walk between buildings had me sweating little streams down my back, but the air conditioning in the building was icy cold.
Jean Ellen’s office was on the second floor, a bigger corner office with incredible views and artwork hanging everywhere, along with a stunning variety of plants of all shapes and sizes. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find tropical birds in there somewhere.
She had her back to me, typing away furiously on her computer. I knocked tentatively, clearing my throat. She spun around, looked me directly in the eyes, and smiled the grandest smile I have ever seen, calling me by name and inviting me in to “have a seat.”
I would not call what happened over the course of the next hour — or was it closer to two? — an “interview” so much as a conversation. We talked about the job, yes, and she asked me questions, yes, but we also talked about why there seemed to be more great American short story writers than novelists, and whether the movie “Goodfellas” was on the same level as the “Godfather” movies, and whether it was valid to talk about Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen in the same breath as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Pablo Neruda. We talked about a new television show we were both very excited about, called “Twin Peaks” by David Lynch.
She told me to put aside my preconceptions about community college students. She warned me that these students, unlike the sleepy freshmen in the university, would hold me accountable, peppering me with questions which they expected me to answer. She asked me if it would bother if half my students were older than I was. She informed me that these students would show up every day prepared, determined, curious, but also nervous and unsure of themselves.
They were there to change their lives and it was our job to help them do that. She asked if I was up to it, and to take some time to think about it instead of giving her an automatic answer.
She was excited that I wanted to teach creative writing, and American Literature, and a class on great films.
“We don’t have a film class, but maybe you could develop one for us? Would you be interested in helping to revive our literary magazine?”
I did not so much leave the interview as I did float out of it. As I found my way back to my car, I felt like I had entered into some kind of strange dreamscape. I knew my life had changed.
I knew I wanted to work for Jean Ellen for as long as possible, and to have a lot more conversations just like this one. I wanted to meet those students she told me about and answer their questions and do my best to live up to their expectations. I wanted to be part of this new College Transfer program and a part of this college.
That was almost 32 years ago. Every semester for all those years, I have thought: I’ll never have another class like this one, another group of students like these. They keep surprising me. They keep asking questions, holding me accountable, just like Jean Ellen promised they would.
Two weeks ago, Jean Ellen passed away after complications from heart surgery. It is shocking when someone so alive somehow dies in spite of it. She was long retired from the thriving program that she built at the college, but she remained intensely curious and, by all accounts, stubbornly joyous. She had traveled the world to see some of nature’s most brilliant and beautiful plants and not long ago finished re-reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
These past few years, except for an occasional lunch outing, our conversations became more sporadic and were mostly conducted on social media, where we would trade lists of the year’s best films, exciting new television series or a new book the other just had to read. She was always excited about something.
As I review the moments that have defined my life, one of the clearest and most cherished is the day I met Jean Ellen (Magers) Forrister. Godspeed you to the sweet hereafter’s finest library, dear lady, adorned with greenery sublime.
I am so happy that we met. My life was never the same after.
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I was also lucky to have my life changed by Jean Ellen, my first and favorite college professor. Do not doubt I had other great professors! But she flipped everything I thought about learning and made it doable, inspiring, and far reaching.
This is a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman!
What an inspiring account of that special person who passed thru your life and meant so much to you. I think we all have had someone like that who made a difference in our lives. At 84 I surely have. One such sweet lady just called me from the nursing home and brightened my day. She is from my church & I miss her.
I remember that English class in the fall ‘91, Mr Cox, I went into become a Registered Respiratory Therapist! What a wonderful tribute!
Thank you Chris for sharing a beautiful Jean Ellen tribute.
Beautiful tribute, Chris.