I’ve admitted before that I based the character of Ishmael (Don’t Call Me Ishmael!) and his dread of speaking in public on me when I was young. Ishmael says that when he stood in front of a group of people to talk, his legs did a ‘wild tribal dance’ and his body went into spasm. I can so relate to that.
I still had that same fear when I started University. Often in small tutorial groups of 10 or so we’d be asked at the start of a Semester to go around the table and say our names and what we were studying at Uni. The thought of just doing that and having all those eyes peering at me at the same time was frightening. All I wanted to do in tutorials was to sit, listen and take notes with my mouth shut. I certainly never dreamed of volunteering to speak.
But in my second year at Uni there was one English tutorial where no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t avoid participating. It was American Literature. Our tutor was a lady from one of the Southern US states. Her name was Dr Jane Novak.
I guess it must have been immediately obvious to Dr Novak that left to myself I would never say a word, so for that reason, she made sure a couple of times every tutorial, to direct a question straight at me. My heart rate would always go into warp drive when I heard something like, “Michael, tell us, what do you think of all this?”
Even worse was when she would utter the dreaded line, “Michael, why don’t you give us the male perspective on this issue.” (I was often the only representative of that gender in the room.) This question terrified me! The male perspective? How would I know what the collective ‘male perspective’ on anything was for goodness sake? And even if I did, I probably didn’t agree with it. Nothing much has changed over the years.
But those questions were merely the start. Dr Jane was never willing to let me off that easily. After I’d mumbled out some barely comprehensible response, an incredulous smile would spread across her face and she would stare at me like I’d just delivered the Gettysburg Address, then say something like, ‘Why that’s so interesting Michael! Now can you just explain a bit more about what you mean by …”
That scenario played out pretty much every tutorial. But the thing is, it worked. I just came to expect to be interrogated and slowly I got more used to opening my mouth. Then, because anything I said was treated with such spontaneous joy and amazement, I started to believe that maybe I actually had something worth saying after all. My confidence grew first in Dr Jane’s tutorial group, and then it spread to my other subjects.
At the end of that semester I went to Dr Novak’s room to collect the journal we had to hand in as part of the course. They were a requirement of passing the subject but not graded in any way. All we had to do was to write down our thoughts, questions and reactions each week as we studied the various texts. You could write in any form you wanted.
When I picked up mine Dr Novak told me that she really enjoyed reading it and then she said, “You realise what you’re doing there don’t you?” Naturally I had no idea. (What else is new?) Then she said, “The way you’ve written each of the responses imitates the style of the author and text you’re writing about.”
She then went on to point out things like how my Hemingway response was brief and in note form while my Faulkner one was much more descriptive. I can’t say I was totally convinced by her theory but it made me feel good to hear it. The other thing Dr Novak said to me that day was, “I think there might be a writer inside you trying to get out.”
That was the last time I remember talking to her as she was due to head back home to the States. Before I left, I’m sure I would have thanked her for teaching me and for all her help. But I’m also sure, that the words that came out of my mouth would have been pathetically inadequate because I had no idea at the time how much knowing her would change my life.
So, just for the record Dr Novak, wherever you are:
Thank you for being easily the best, as well as the most enthusiastic, inspirational and influential teacher I’ve ever had. Thank you too, for making me love words and stories even more than I already did and especially for giving me the confidence to finally let myself be heard.
And Dr Novak, you know that writer you said you saw struggling inside me way back then? I thought you’d like to hear, that after you said those words, he struggled a bit harder and with a bit more faith and belief, and he finally made it out.