How I Became an English Major (Or Just Follow the Signs: Part I)

I arrived in Milledgeville in September of 1976 as an “Undecided” major at Georgia College.  At that time, undecided majors got the one philosophy professor as their advisor.  Because no one, or nearly no one, majored in philosophy.

My first quarter was easy to schedule.  I’d take some basic core courses in history, English, science.  It didn’t matter.  I’d need all of those classes no matter what I majored in.  Since I was a brand-new freshman, I didn’t have any professors I wanted to avoid or any I specifically wanted.  I took whoever fit my schedule.

Lanier Hall (is this where I had my first English class? I don’t know.  Maybe?)

That meant I had “Staff” for my English class.  I remember sitting in a classroom of nearly all sophomores on the first day.  I was one of two or three freshmen in that class, freshmen who had exempted English 101 because of our SAT verbal scores.  We had gone straight into English 102.

Before our first class, we were sitting in our desks waiting for the professor to appear.  The sophomores were speculating about which professor it would be, hoping for one of the easier ones.

Exactly on time for class to begin, the door opened.

Dr. Gordon walked in, and the sophomore right behind me whispered, “Oh no!  It’s Dr. Gordon.  She’s so hard!”

I don’t remember being worried by that comment, though maybe I was.  I do remember being worried when Dr. Gordon told us we’d be writing literary analysis essays.  I’d never written an essay before.  Never.  Our high school’s teachers didn’t find that essential.

I don’t know how far it was into the quarter, but one day we had our first in-class essay.  I think the subject was Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir Tree.”  I had no idea how to write an essay, but I muddled through.  When we got the graded essay back a little while later, I had a C+.  I was relieved.  I figured that wasn’t bad for my having no idea how to write an essay.   Once Dr. Gordon taught us how to write a literary analysis essay, I’d be okay.

The next memory I have from that class is writing an in-class essay on “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” by Delmore Schwartz.

I always did my reading assignments before class –  if they were short stories.  If they were poems, I didn’t.  I figured if Dr. Gordon assigned us an in-class essay on a poem, poetry was short enough for me to figure it out at that time.

Sure enough, one day she assigned us an in-class essay on “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me.”   A poem.  I don’t remember reading the poem, ciphering through it, and writing the essay.  But apparently I did.

Russell Auditorium

Two or three weeks later, Dr. Gordon came into class and told us that the essays on “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me” were so bad that she’d thrown them away.  Except for a couple.  Which she was going to read to us.

She read the first one, and I thought it was good.  She said that the student hadn’t quite gotten the meaning of the poem but was close.  I congratulated that classmate.  She sat next to me.

Then Dr. Gordon said the next student had understood the poem and had written a good essay.  Or something to that effect.

When she started reading, I recognized the words.  My face turned bright red.  It was my essay.  I was embarrassed – and proud, too.  I remember thinking, “Hey, that sounds pretty good!”  When she finished reading the essay, she identified me as the writer.  Several people sitting around me complimented me.

It was one of those golden moments, the ones after which you glow inside for hours, perhaps days – even weeks.

I realized that day that I was “good” at English.  That I understood literature.  That it came naturally to me.

I finished that quarter with an A in English 102.  And on my last Blue Book test booklet, Dr. Gordon wrote a note for me to drop by her office at my convenience.

I remember that the day I dropped by I was wearing a navy blue polyester warm up suit and was carrying a basketball.  I was on the college women’s basketball team and was headed to the gym to shoot some baskets.

I peeked into Dr. Gordon’s office.  She waved me in.  What she wanted to discuss with me was that she thought I should consider being an English major.

I was flattered.  After all, this was Dr. Gordon, the English professor who was so hard.  And she thought that I should be an English major.

I don’t know if I had considered English before then or not.  But I do know that I waited another couple of quarters to declare my major.  I wanted to take a couple more English classes to see what I thought.

I found that I enjoyed literature, that understanding it came naturally to me.  I found that I enjoyed the reading and writing and discussions and research.

For me, literature was just life in words.  It was what I felt and thought and did.  What we all felt and thought and did, now and in the past and in the future.

So I declared my major as English after Spring Quarter of 1977.  But I did not major in English Education.  Because I was never going to teach.

That’s another story.

This is one is How I Became an English Major.  I followed the signs.  I still try to do that.  I’m getting a little impatient for the sign that shows me the way to my next career path.  I hope I haven’t received it and missed it . . .

I keep watching and waiting.  Because I know it will come.

I hope it’s as clear as the English major one was.

Front campus, Georgia College

Photos are from the Georgia College web site

3 thoughts on “How I Became an English Major (Or Just Follow the Signs: Part I)

  1. Did I know this???? Maybe parts of it… And I’m glad to learn or be reminded of the parts I didn’t know or forgot. It’s a great story, and a well-written one! (oooo, I do hope Dr. Gordon agrees if she reads it. 😉 ) (is that the correct way to close parentheses if you put one in as a wink?)

    • Well, Karla, Dr. Gordon does agree that this is well written and, honestly, compelling. Now let’s hope your sister and my former student gets her direction for the next segment of her journey! Sarah G

  2. “Watch and wait.” I used those words this week. I should probably use them every week. Every day, right? That would be a good mantra. Another lesson……

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