Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May 9, 2017
National Teacher Appreciation Day

Dear Leo Braudy:

I asked my Creative Writing students today to write letters to a teacher they felt influenced them in their short seventeen years on earth. It could be a classroom teacher, a coach, a relative, anyone who made a significant impact on their learning in some way. We then started to discuss how “Teacher Appreciation” takes on a whole new meaning when considering the new French President Emmanuel Macron’s affair and then marriage to one of his teachers from high school. We had some good laughs until one of the students asked me if I ever had a teacher with whom I was genuinely in love. And it took me no time to answer. While I’ve respected all my teachers and coaches immensely, while almost all of them have made an impact on my life in more ways than one, there is only one teacher in all my years of formal and informal schooling for whom my infatuation never waned, never ceased. You are that teacher, Leo Braudy. And today’s the day for you to know that you are appreciated, and yes, loved.

I first walked into your classroom in the Spring of 1985 after finishing my first semester at USC. A wide-eyed and curious Dean’s and Trustee Scholar from New Jersey, I soaked up all that my Thematic Option courses laid before me. In the fall Dr. Nyomarkay introduced me to E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and I still remember a map of Yugoslavia I drew in my notebook. Mostly because years later there was no Yugoslavia anymore. I had another professor that fall but I can only remember her name was Barbara, she wore Birkenstocks and gray pinstripe trousers every day, and she was very disappointed that we didn’t understand the importance of the dynamo in The Education of Henry Adams. She also made us read the Oresteia, which had a huge impact on me as I studied Greek Theatre years later in a Master’s Degree. But it wasn’t until I walked into your class, Leo, that I felt the muses sing and I first swooned over a real live idol.

I had plenty of fictional character fantasies. My sophomore year of high school Huck Finn and I traveled down the Mississippi River together hundreds of times. Then when Roger Rees portrayed Nicholas Nickleby in the nine-hour RSC/PBS Special of Dickens’ novel, well, I had an infatuation to last another two years. Then the summer before heading to USC I saw the play The Keeper by Karolyn Nelke and Lord Byron pushed aside Huck and Nick for my affections. But then, that Spring Semester at USC I had my new Thematic Option Symbols and Structures course and I thought somehow the literary gods had crafted me my very own Lord Byron Nickleby Finn hybrid when you walked into that classroom in Taper.

I will admit, my devotion to you did not always translate itself into fervid or thorough completion of all your assignments. I know that I showed incredible interest in the Wife of Bath one Canterbury Tales class day because The Summoner and The Clerk just didn’t get much of my time the night before. But you always indulged our musings and helped us see how very alive English literature could be, even if it was from the fourteenth century. You were finishing your work on Frenzy of Renown and while you helped us understand how Alexander the Great was a rock star as big as Madonna, you had no idea of the literary dream idol you had become in my eyes.

I wanted to have you in class so much again, but I was not an English major. I was a Religion major, the only one in the Class of 1988, actually. Lots of minors, but only one major. The claim to fame that garnered me the honor of carrying the Humanities Flag at graduation. Thank you, Donald Miller! But I needed to have a Leo Braudy class before I graduated and the only way I could do that was to petition to get into your graduate level Literature in Film class. Watching the zillion papers I needed to get signed and the paragraphs upon paragraphs extolling my eligibility, my roommates asked me why I didn’t just sign up for any old class, it was our last semester, after all. Precisely, was my reply, and I must have Leo Braudy in class again. And those literary gods shone upon me again and I got to revel in your film analysis as you opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing. We had read Frankenstein and I fantasized that I was Mary Shelley telling my story to you, my friend Lord Byron. There were, of course, not the James Whale images at all. I had a fuzzy memory of a made for television film I saw when I was in first grade, something where the “monster” was a handsome man at first, the way he was in Shelley’s novel. It was a film that started with Mary, Percy Bysshe and George Gordon sitting at Lake Geneva. I asked if you had ever heard of such a television movie but you had not. I knew I had not just dreamed it, so I started my first true research quest in a pre-Internet world, an exciting endeavor of research that drove me through several years of graduate school both in the 20th and the 21st centuries. Lucky for me I was at one of the premier universities for cinema studies because after much time in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature looking up TV Guides from 1972 and 1973, I found it! Christopher Isherwood’s teleplay Frankenstein: The True Story. My pride in my accomplishment on the subsequent comparison paper was fueled by your authentic and genuine interest in the teleplay and wonder at how I remembered such an obscure but ultimately relevant moment from first grade late night television.

When I left USC, I returned to the East Coast joyfully. I was never very comfortable in the centerless world of Los Angeles. But I still took my memories of you to every used bookstore I ventured in Philadelphia, my new adopted city as I was at Villanova University studying for a Master’s in Theatre. At one of the largest used book stores on South Street I finally found a copy of Frenzy of Renown that I could call my own. That was 1989. And in 1993, on a particularly gloomy and rainy weekend, I was sitting in my small apartment in Sasebo Shi, Japan watching CNN International because it was the only English Language television I could get. I’m watching Crossfire and they are eager to talk about Michael Jackson who was becoming an increasingly bizarre celebrity and there you were! “Discussing fame on Crossfire today, Professor Leo Braudy from the University of Southern California.” My heart swelled and while you would never know it, that little piece of home and familiar smile sustained me several more months in Japan.

Decades passed and the seeds of interest in literature planted by you in 1985 burgeoned even more as I pursued a second Master’s Degree, this time in English at Rutgers University in Newark. And as fate would have it, in 2007, I happened on campus to get a library book for one of my classes and I saw flyers announcing a keynote speaker: Leo Braudy speaking on “Secular Anointings: Fame, Celebrity, and Charisma in the First Century of Mass Culture.” The irony was you have been the only “celebrity” whose charisma has ever made me do silly fan-girl things like cart my eight-year-old and two-year-old daughters to a university lecture so I could finally get my copy of Frenzy of Renown autographed.

My secret love for you, Dear Leo Braudy, is no longer secret on this Teacher Appreciation Day. I will shout it from the blog-o-sphere and I promised my students that I would e-mail it to you as well. I almost even called you today when I easily found that you are still a professor at the ol’ alma mater, USC. (Thank you, Internet.)

It’s time you knew that for over three decades you have affected the course of a life. Your genuine love for learning in a wide variety of genres and your authentic interest in the minds and thoughts of your students are qualities I know I’ve tried to emulate. I never really thought I’d be an English teacher back then in 1985. I could barely get through Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 without a headache. But here I am, making students read Shakespeare and Chaucer, Dickens and Austen. And talking to a Creative Writing class about teachers I would have considered having a Macron-like affair with shouting as I graduated “I will come back someday and marry you.” While that boat has likely already sailed, Leo Braudy, please know that you have made an impact on my life and will forever remain my deepest and longest crush.