Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Driving Back to Mercer

This morning I went on a drive that took me a little less than thirty miles west and a little more than thirty years into the past.

When I was nineteen, I took a writing class at Mercer University’s Atlanta campus, not too far from Northlake Mall (the mall of my youth). It was a continuing education class, not a real for-credit college class, though I did take it at around the same time I was taking English 1101 at DeKalb College (another class I dearly loved). Though it didn’t count towards any of my degrees, I consider it perhaps the single most important writing class I ever took.

The teacher was Jalaine Halsall, a short and vivacious red-haired woman with a ready laugh and an infectious enthusiasm for literature. She had recently published a short story in The Chattahoochee Review that had won an award of some sort (I wish I could but I can’t remember exactly what; it was so long ago that Google can’t provide an answer), and she’d published a number of poems in various literary magazines. She didn’t have a degree in creative writing – I believe she had studied psychology at Agnes Scott, years before, though I don’t know if she had a degree or not – but she had recently taken a poetry class at Georgia State with David Bottoms, who became one of my favorite poets because of Jalaine’s influence. (I also took a class with him when I transferred to GSU a couple of years later.)

The class met one night a week – Thursdays, perhaps? I don’t remember – from 6:00 until 8:00 – or maybe it was 8:00 until 10:00; I can recall virtually none of the ancillary details like day and time or classroom number. But I remember the class perfectly. There were eight or ten of us, and at the beginning of class we would drag our desk noisily into a circle, and for the next two hours we would devote ourselves to literature: some nights we would begin by reading and discussing a poem or part of a story, or talking about something that was going on in the reading and writing world, and some nights we would jump right away into what made up the most substantial part of the class: the workshop, where we would all give input on the stories or poems – our stories and poems – that we had distributed the week before. Every kind of input was encouraged, from high-level general feedback (“This character doesn’t seem quite as mature as I think you want him to be”) to specific line edits or word suggestions (“‘rend’ might work better here than ‘tear’”).

I wrote a number of stories and a few poems for that class. I craved the attention and feedback and, yes, praise that environment provided. I learned from all of my other writing classes, too, of course, the ones I took for college credit at DeKalb and then at Georgia State, and the classes I took in graduate school at Kennesaw and GCSU years later, but I think the Mercer continuing-ed creative writing class with Jalaine is the class from which I gained the most.

I took the class two terms in a row (quarters or semesters or eight-week sessions; I don’t remember what the terms were), and I stayed in touch with Jalaine for a year or so after that, but then I got busy with college and work and life and I lost touch with her. I wish I hadn’t.

That was all thirty years ago. Now, this morning I needed to return a few things to JC Penney, a few shirts that Anna had picked out for Jessica but which Jessica didn’t like, and I decided to take them to Northlake – even if it is not the mall it used to be (and what mall is?), I still like to go to Northlake and walk around and have lunch in the (ever shrinking) food court a few times a year, just to revisit my youth.

I had plenty of time this morning (I don’t teach on Wednesdays), so I decided that before I went to the mall, I would drive over to Mercer – it’s not far from Northlake, remember – and see what it was like thirty years later.

It’s a beautiful, heavily-wooded campus with about a dozen buildings, some of which were constructed (I’m pretty sure) after my short time there. It was mostly empty this morning – their fall semester must not have started yet, so I passed only a few students during the forty-five minutes or so that I walked around. I went into several buildings, including, I think, the one in which my creative class met all those years ago, but nothing seemed especially familiar; everything has probably been changed several times over since I went there.

I kept expecting someone to challenge me – “Can I help you? Could I see your ID?” – but no one did. I walked into the bookstore; one of the young women who worked there asked if I needed anything, and I told her I was just looking around randomly, and she allowed me to do so in peace. I kept thinking that everyone can tell I’m not really a Mercer student and I didn’t belong there, but I doubt anyone actually gave me that much thought.

I enjoyed walking around that beautiful campus; it didn’t make me as melancholy as I thought it would – mourning my lost youth and all that. I treasure my experiences from that time in my life – reading the authors of that time, like Amy Hempel and Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver; discovering Chekhov; writing my own attempts at minimalist short stories, a few of which were published in amateur little magazines that nobody’s ever heard of (Green Feather Magazine, The Agincourt Irregular, and The Ecphorizer, among others); dreaming about the literary life I would someday lead.

And now, thirty years later, I don’t lead an especially literary life – not like I thought I would, anyway – but I don’t especially mourn its absence. I still read Chekhov sometimes, but I haven’t read Hempel or Mason or Carver in years, though Hempel and Mason are still alive and writing. I’m pretty happy teaching English 1101 at a two-year technical college rather than teaching creative writing and literature courses at a major university, as I once aspired to. I’m not writing fiction these days, but I do intend to again some day, and I keep myself at least somewhat creatively fulfilled with photography, essays like this, the family blog, and (believe it or not) the many exercises I create for my students.

I’m glad, though, that I can go back to the places that have been important to me over the years, and think back on the times that were special to me. I may not go back to Mercer again anytime soon, but this morning’s walk around the campus nourished me enough for a while.

Me, just before I got out of my car to walk around Mercer for a while.

The McAfee School of Theology at Mercer

The cafeteria (tiny though it appeared to be) is in this building

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