Bob, my Veterans Administration student advisor, was surprised I got into this writing class my first quarter.
“You’re lucky, it’s a popular class,” he said, “and you do know she’s a university professor — a top professor — right?”
No, I didn’t know a thing about her. I just needed an arts elective for my conservation science major. But to get into this writing class, I had to apply first, since the professor accepted just a few undergraduates each fall. Can’t remember the class name, but I remember that application: “Who are your favorite authors?” I thought of Melville, Dickens; but, to be iconic, I wrote Loren Eiseley, Rene Dubos and Jacques Ellul. (I thought those names might stump her but, no, in the end it turned out she knew them). The application asked about my interests — guitar, climbing, fishing and hiking.
It asked my veterans status — yeah, I’m home from my first Army stint a year ago. I just transferred from Pierce Junior College to the University of California at Berkeley.
It’s the story my generation knows. My grades had been so poor in junior college. Then, I lost my deferment — wow, I was so stupid. I served my short tour in the military, didn’t see much. My parents told me I was moody, angry and quiet when I came home. I winced at myself and focused on school. My grades were much better the second time around, and somehow I wound up at Cal. Everybody else I met on campus needed straight A’s to get in. For once, I felt smart.
I was told they’d hate me here as a Vietnam-era vet — but my classmates were just curious and polite. I was lonely. They had questions; I gave them few answers. I admit some students gave me a sour stare, but I never heard a curse.
The class was Wednesday at 10 a.m. Its description said: write stories, present them in class. Seemed easy, but I was uneasy — stories about what? The war was still going on — some of my Cal-mates could end up there. I didn’t want to know their faces. Don’t want that here. Just enjoy myself and relax; I was in, and on my way to a degree.
The first day of class, fall 1973, I showed up early. When I got to the room, I flipped out: many students were waiting, hoping to enroll if someone dropped out. I had what they wanted: an enrollment card. I pressed through the crowd. J. Miles, Instructor, it said on the door. Who’s she?
I showed my card to the enrollment “guard,” and he let me in. The instructor was not there. The class was packed. I sat in the back and waited.
The door slammed open. Everybody looked up. A burly man came in with what looked like a dead body slumped over his shoulder. He dumped it on the instructor’s chair. A mumbled “thank you” came from the sack. He left. The sack squirmed itself upright in the seat. It was a woman, her arms, legs, wrists and fingers bent and gnarled like a banshee witch in a fairy tale. She could only lift her right hand and move a few fingers.
This was Josephine Miles. I later learned she was a world-renowned poet, friend of Hayden Carruth, praised by Randall Jarrell and Alfred Corn, third place finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Lenore Marshall Award winner. Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, was one of her discoveries. She was the University Professor. I was stunned. I had no idea.
Then she did something I can still see clearly in my mind. She looked up and smiled at us with all the power her contorted face allowed — a smile so warm, so accepting, so generous and daring it reminded me of another smile — the confident grin you’ll see on statutes of Francoise Voltaire, the Enlightenment philosopher, wit, and civil libertarian.
I was a weary vet, but I never saw a smile like hers. It made me melt. My spine tingled. It was the smile I’ve waited for all my life, the one my buddies waited for since coming home from Vietnam, and here it was on this crippled old woman’s face. I later learned that Miles suffered most of her life from debilitating arthritis.
This was not the fake smile of a preacher warning us vets to fear God because of what sins we’d done — but one from an abiding humanist with no agenda but to know you, to appreciate you, to help you move on as you. That smile helped recover my life, I know now.
She said this class is not about “literature,” but about stories, our stories. She loved original stories, she said, and each of us had one. We’d learn to write them down, to read them aloud, even to dramatize them in class. Students started to fidget in their seats, as I did — but she still had us.
Her pinched index finger touched each name on her student roster, brimming with discovery as if we were her very first class. She said our names clearly, like she knew us already. She fumbled her pencil while marking off our names. She glanced at the forms we filled out. She came to my name. I raised my hand, “Here, Ma’am, err, Professor Miles.”
“Ah, Mr. Hastings,” she said, looking up, “nice to meet you. I know the class and I are especially interested in your story.”
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