Elegy to a Mentor

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Gibb (with Beth and her 80s hair).

Gibb (with Beth and her 80s hair).

Today would have been the 80th birthday of my college mentor. All afternoon I’ve been having “Gibb flashes” and was surprised to look on my perpetual birthday calendar and see his name in parentheses (parentheses being the only indication I am ever willing to give that someone on my calendar is now dead). Somewhere on one of my often-confused brain cells, there must have been some Gibb info stored and an impulse got released to remind me to send him a greeting today.

Only sadly, I have to send it to the general populace since he died in 2006.

When I went to college, I was an art major. My whole life until then I’d either had a pen in my hand for writing or a pen in my hand for drawing, so it’s easy to see now why I was confused about what I should do with my life back then. For the first six weeks of college, I dutifully carried my art supplies to the Fine Arts building and tried not to be intimidated by the girl who wore a beret or the guy who carried a paisley purse, both of whom looked like artists while I was wearing polo shirts and sweaters with shoulder pads. I also tried to ignore how loathe I was to use the mandatory charcoal because the feel of it dragging across the paper set my nerves on edge and I preferred the delicate, fine strokes of a pen. Eventually it became apparent that the joy I felt going into the classroom beneath the art studio for my Valuing Through Literature course when compared to the glumness I felt about Drawing 101, probably meant something significant. Possibly, I would have come to this realization without Gibb at the helm of that class I’d accidentally been placed in by a disinterested advisor, but I like to think it was destiny that put me in his class and that led me to the registrar’s office before the term was up to change my major to English.

Gibb was in his 50s, balding, and had this air of an Englishman even though he was 100% American. (When I say “air” I don’t mean that he put on airs. He was just so caught up in British literature and history, that he gave off an English vibe, so much so that his perfectly American English would start to sound like English English in your ear.) More than once, the actor Anthony Hopkins has reminded me of Gibb, though not so much when he played Hannibal Lecter.

Gibb had this habit of lecturing into his yellow legal pad, as if he were talking to himself in an empty room, only occasionally looking up at one of us with a slight smile or a squinted eye if he’d said something particularly poignant about a poem or essay. He moved his coffee cup around as he talked, as if he couldn’t find the exact right spot for it, and his lectures, while full of the expected details about literature, were also chock-full of anecdotes that you’d miss if you weren’t listening, such as his  memory of the first ball point pen and how the advertisements  had said, “It can write on butter!” as if writing on butter was something everyone would want to do, or his disappointment that inaugurations never looked as good as they did after the Kennedy presidency, which he blamed on the lack of top hats. One of my favorites was about the Wedgwood China he’d won in a puzzle contest that he enjoyed because with it came a trip to England. When he told us about it, he shook his head at the memory of his daughter, who was concerned about how much each piece of it had cost. He said, “How does the price of a gravy boat make the gravy taste any better?” In his mind, it was somehow tied to what we were learning to value through literature, but to some of my classmates, he just seemed like an old guy who rambled. It was these anecdotes of his—dutifully copied in my notes right next to dates and themes of Bride of Lammermoor—that led me to the understanding that literature was life, and vice versa.

He loved pigs and had had a pet one named Jipper when he was a boy, and it would meet him after school each day. Various pig trinkets dotted the shelves which were filled with books about and by Romantic and Victorian British authors, including a tea towel with pigs on it dancing around some building blocks that spelled out ENGLISH. (My friend Bunz, once said, “Until I met Gibb, I had no idea that pigs and English had anything to do with each other.”  I’m still curious about where one would find such a tea towel.)

My fellow English majors liked him fine, but he was not one of the campus personalities around whom students flocked, those intellectual celebrity-profs who spent as much class time talking about themselves and their vast stores of knowledge and accomplishments as they did the subject at hand. Nor was he like the psychology prof in the tight Levis who was popular despite a rather crabby disposition. Gibb amused students, if anything, both because of his odd lecturing manner and the quiet jokes he’d crack in the classroom. Did my classmates respect him? I don’t really know but I have to believe they did because I can’t really stand the thought that they might not have.

Friends who were English majors were aware of my devotion to him and how I hung on his every word, and they sometimes teased me about being in love with him. It was in good fun, but it got under my skin…like being accused of having the hots for Mr. Chips or Yoda or, well, Buddha or Jesus. You just don’t do that. It wasn’t about that. Mostly, I just wanted to scoop out what was in his brain and put it into mine.

One of the regular requirements for his classes were journals, an activity that I loathed for other professors, but I knew Gibb was reading mine because he regularly praised me for the quality, and so I began writing them with more vigor because it was clear I had an audience. It was the perfect communication style for two introverts. His written commentary gave me insight into the work I was writing about, his praise gave me a little more faith in my abilities, and on one occasion when he chastised me, his words burned deep and I spent weeks mentally twisting while I tried to figure out if I had been misunderstood or if I needed to alter my perspective to align more with his.

I remember the satisfaction I felt, when I brought Helene Hanff’s books, 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street to his attention. He’d never heard of her, devoured the books, and one day when I was working in the English Department at my job as a student secretary, I overheard him suggesting the books to someone else. I felt like I’d accomplished something, to carry these two small books to this man who had introduced me to so much fine literature, the way a cat leaves a mouse on a doorstep for its master.

My junior year, he and his wife, took a group of students to England for a week. It was my first trip outside of the U.S., and the idea of seeing the England that Gibb had lectured about with him (and with my friends), really was a dream come true. Our first full day there he led us to the Tower of London, and I can still remember the sort of naïve shock I felt when I realized that the places I’d spent my life reading about were real, the historical figures were real, and even the fictional characters and places were real­-ish.

For some reason, one of my fondest memories from that trip was at Windsor Castle where I overheard his wife pointing out that St. George’s chapel was closed, and Gibb said to her, with the most irritation (and disappointment) I had ever heard from him, “Of course it is closed. Whenever we are here it is closed. Why would it be open today?” Years later when I managed to be there on a day when it was open, I was sure to remember the details of what struck me there—the photo and light burning by the tomb of the current queen’s father, what it felt like to stand directly over Henry VIII’s bones, the checkered floor, the banners—so I could give him the details in case he never did get to see it for himself.

After my graduation, we kept in touch with letters and regular Christmas cards, in which we’d always promise to get together in the near future, though we never did. I wanted to be able to report to him that I had become the next Erma Bombeck or Mike Royko (his two suggested futures for me, as if these were job openings I was likely to see an ad for), and so I kept putting off seeing him maybe, and instead reported less grand things in my letters: a new degree, a trip to Ireland, a new job teaching. In my  memory, I thanked him for what he’d taught me when I started teaching my own students, but I’m not sure I did. I hope I did. Certainly, some percentage of what I said and did in the classroom was because of Gibb.

One year his wife signed the Christmas card and there was no letter. Instead of feeling glad to hear that they were both well, I felt annoyed. Within the year, he had died.  A few weeks later, I found the previous year’s Christmas card and realized it wasn’t his wife who had signed it. It was Gibb. His handwriting looked less like itself, less sure, and the message was short, “Please come and see us!” And I wept because of those things we desperately want “do-overs” on but can’t have.

His voice cracked once when he talked about aging love in Robert Burns’s poem “John Anderson, my Jo” and it has stuck with me all of these years, how much the words on the page were alive for Gibb and should have been alive for all of us, young things that we were, so sure we’d never age.

2 responses »

  1. This brings back so many happy memories but now you’ve got me all choked up. That was the best trip ever, and he was the best tour guide. I only wish I had made it to Windsor Castle with the rest of you that day. Talk about do-overs!

    P.S. Love the photo of the two of you with Tower Bridge in the background.

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