I used to see him outside of Memorial Hall, the stately brick building where English classes were held at the University of Delaware. He'd stand on one of the stairwells, leaning against a wrought iron railing that led to the entryway, and I'd see him smoke cigarettes between classes, often surrounded by students who would stand and smoke with him, laughing at everything he said. He seemed older than some of the other professors, but it could have been the grey beard tumbling off of his face that gave that impression. He always dressed casually but professionally, wearing collared shirts but never a sports jacket. Once, as I walked by the group of inhalers on my way to Biblical and Classical Literature, I heard him speak and realized he had an accent. I hadn't expected that. It sounded kind of southern, but I couldn't really place the origin.
During the first three years of college, as an English/Film major, I spent many hours inside of Memorial Hall, and every time I walked towards the building across the perfectly manicured lawns of the grassy Mall, I would stare at the grand white columns that flanked the doorway and the wide stone steps and I would feel truly grateful that my college looked like the kind of school my fantasies had constructed while I was rushing my present away in high school. It was a stunning campus, and I appreciated the beauty every single day, even during the rain, and it rained a lot. I'm pretty sure that during my sophomore year it literally rained every Tuesday and Thursday because I don't think I ever went to my Shakespeare class without an umbrella. Still, as I'd dash towards the dryness of the inside of Memorial, I would notice how the gorgeously-maintained flowers planted outside would glisten in the distance, raindrops hanging off the yellow petals of the daffodils like tears, but happy ones.
By senior year I had taken many Film classes, and all of them were taught by a brilliant, sarcastic professor I liked very much. He wasn't warm, but we developed a nice relationship, and I came to know him rather well. There were only a few professors in the Film program then, and at that point all of my classes had been with that one professor who reminded me of Woody Allen and had a sarcastic kind of humor I responded to and who wrote probing, thoughtful comments on the papers I would write for him. I actually enjoyed writing those papers. I'd feel proud when I turned them in. I might have, in say, an Old English course I took, skim The Canterbury Tales because I never gave a shit about the Wife of Bath, but I read every single page of required reading in my
Film classes including the footnotes, and I would never even dream of turning a paper in late.
I took Intro classes and one on Music in Film and one entire semester on the films of Woody Allen and a course entirely devoted to Film Noir. I would take notes during the screenings, my engagement never wavering, my ability to analyze getting more honed every day, and I would raise my hand in class and offer my opinions and once I was shushed by the professor so that the other students who were sitting silently could be called upon, and I do that to students in my classes sometimes now. I wasn't offended when it happened to me back then. I got what he was going for, and I was willing to shut up and sit back, though there were so many things I wanted to say.
I'd have to drag myself to some of my required courses, the ones like Nutrition and Math and Spanish, a course I had five times a week for two years. It got to the point in my life as a student that I simply wanted to study what I was interested in, not subjects that only seemed to serve to lower my GPA. But the day the course catalogue came out for the next semester – back then it was still printed in a booklet and we'd register over the phone – I would turn to the Film section like it was Christmas morning, so excited to see which courses were being offered. There were required courses, but the focus of them would change from semester to semester, and I loved being part of a major where the professors were clearly given some freedom to teach what they felt passionate about at that given moment. That embracing of wanting to keep a course in a constant movement of evolution, ever-shifting, is another thing I internalized as a student and I infuse it now into my own teaching. It's harder when you keep changing what you teach and how you teach it, but the challenge inherent in doing so keeps me enthusiastic, keeps making me grow my strengths. And it keeps the course current, which allows my students to invest in what they're learning. That might mean that I have to sit through The Purge 2: Anarchy, a film I'm not all that interested in, but my kids have all seen it, so my belief is that I'd better see it too so I can reference it in a discussion of something like production design. When you speak their cultural language, they stay awake. And that's a good thing since, if they're sleeping, I kick them the fuck out of my classroom.
There are some things I simply have no patience for, and that's been the case since I started teaching at twenty-three. I can't see that quality changing ever.
When something new I decide to teach doesn't work, it's humbling. When a new unit I've created leads to a room full of excited, engaged eighteen year olds, I feel like I'm soaring.
I'm not sure there are many jobs where you get to feel such an immediate sense of accomplishment. It almost makes up for not having air conditioning and teaching in a room that was 97 degrees last week – almost. When the section of my brain that melted in the alarming humidity of last week returns and becomes solid, I'll decide for sure whether the joys inherent in my job are worth the misery I suffered in the unrelenting heaviness of the heat that plagued the first week of the academic year.
But back to Delaware, where I don't remember if the classrooms were blowing cold air, which means they either were or I've blocked out the days of melting into desks, and if that's the case, I thank my protective psyche a thousand times over for shrouding such painful memories.
Senior year: I wanted to take a new course offered, a symposium called Hollywood and the 1950s. It was to be taught by the bearded professor, the one I'd seen for a long time now, the one I'd never met. But there was a problem. The course was only open to the school's honor students, and I wasn't part of that elite group since I'd spent high school doing only what was required of me to leave myself ample time for having fun, not the kind of practice that makes a competitive college beg you to be in their honors program. But here's where having a mother who is a college Dean comes in handy. She told me to call the professor and ask him to make an exception.
"He doesn't even know me," I told her over the phone.
"It doesn't matter," she replied. "You're asking to be in his class because you have a real desire to be there. No professor will say no to that."
She was right. About those things, she was always right.
I spoke to him over the phone and he agreed to make an exception and I joined the class. In one fifty-minute session, I realized the man was quite possibly the best professor I had ever seen. He tied my father, a professor of English and Comedy before he died, with his hilarious deadpan delivery, his vast and ever-growing knowledge, his conversational anecdotes that would bracket the theories he taught us, his perfect pacing which made every class fly by, making me glance up at the clock and be shocked the class was about to end. We learned about what was happening historically, politically, and socially in America during the fifties, and then we would watch films from the decade and analyze how the films released during the time reflected or subverted the zeitgeist of the decade. It was fascinating, every bit of it, and I realized that Film Theory could really only be taught as a course that was almost a hybrid – part History, part Sociology, part straight Film because you need to understand the time a film was released into to fully comprehend the film's meaning. I devoured the texts required for the class. I did outside reading. I called my grandmother to ask her to tell me stories of air raids and shifting gender roles during the time I hadn't lived through. I learned how McDonald's and Levittown illustrated social conformity and then watched Rebel Without a Cause for the tenth time and saw it differently than I had in the previous nine viewings.
The first paper for the class required us to choose a film from the fifties and watch it through the lens of one of the texts we read in the class. I chose to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and filter the messages and the subtext of the happy musical through the texts about women's roles we had studied.
I have my own writing style. I don't start papers with a one-sentence thesis. I start with a visual, a verbal portrait that sets the scene, stated in a style that's both conversational and, hopefully, snags the reader. By the end of the paragraph, it will always be clear what the paper will prove, but I get to that point my own way, and I like that I'm unconventional in that manner.
Seemed my stylistic choices weren't for everyone. We were required to bring a draft of the paper to the Honors Center so that the students who served as tutors in the program could peer-edit our work. I walked into a building I'd passed for three years and had never entered and sat at a table with a girl I'd never met who marked up my paper with a pen with blood-red ink and then listened as she told me I couldn't begin a paper with a line from a movie; I had to set out a formal thesis statement in my opening line.
I tried to explain that I wrote using a certain tone, that the thesis statement was woven into the first paragraph in my own way, but my ideas and my style were shut down by a fellow student, an honors student who thought she knew better. At the end of our meeting I thanked her kindly and left with my bleeding paper in my hand, determined to never get peer-edited again, determined to turn my paper in the way I'd chosen to write it.
I got an A on that paper, and a comment that included "your writing style is a pleasure in and of itself," and I knew I'd made the right call and that this professor understood me.
I was hooked.
Over winter session, I took another class with Dr. Ross, my new favorite professor. It was 1995 then, a full hundred years since the first movie had been created, and the course was meant to explore the history of Film. The class was held in a giant lecture hall that also served as a screening room and I remember meeting a guy in that class who was remarkably cute and would search the room for me, his eyes gliding over every other girl to find my seat, and soon I'd sit in the same seat each class so he would know where I was and we would talk and flirt, and I'm not sure if I told him that I had a boyfriend but I do know that the moment Dr. Ross would start teaching, I was no longer interested in anything the cute guy had to say. I was riveted to the course.
One day we learned about the history of formal Film criticism, and out of nowhere Dr. Ross looked over to where I was sitting in the middle of the tenth row and said, "Nell, who is Pauline Kael?" and I answered that she was the Film critic for The New Yorker since the late sixties, the one who wrote a review of Bonnie and Clyde that heralded the film and skewered Bosley Crother's scathing review of the same film in The New York Times. Only later did I realize that there was something special about that moment: a professor I thought brilliant realized I was the kind of Film student who knew things about Film he hadn't taught. He got what this art form meant to me.
That winter, he invited filmmakers to the campus to give lectures. When I heard John Waters was coming, I was beyond excited to meet the man who took bad taste to such levels of cinematic excellence. To this day, I have never seen anything grosser than some sequences in Polyester, and while I don't ever want to see it again, I applaud its creator for his utter ballsiness.
The night Waters came to campus, I brought my friend Katie to the lecture. Katie was a Finance major. She studied concepts that held no interest for me and she was the first of my friends to own an honest to God business suit in navy that she wore with sensible low-heeled pumps. It was a world I could not possibly comprehend, even then. But Katie was also one of my closest friends, hilarious and daring, and some of the best nights of my whole life were spent with her by my side. And she had listened to me rhapsodize about my professor and his wit and his brilliance, and when she saw him she looked at me, confused.
"I thought he'd look dark and mysterious," she told me in a whisper as we filed into the third row, close enough to be noticed, not so close that we'd look desperate to be seen.
"I'm not looking to date the man; I just think he's maybe the coolest, smartest person I've ever known," I whispered back.
"Your major is weird," she told me as we drove home after the lecture, and I guess it was to her but I loved every second of being a Film major, even though to this day I struggle trying to create an Excel document because I was never taught that stuff. But I know off the top of my head things I deem essential knowledge: the year Pulp Fiction was released, when NC-17 was introduced, and distribution patterns of studio films. You know, the important stuff.
In my last semester of college I took two more classes with Dr. Ross, which made it four classes I'd taken with him in only a year. The last two were Film Theory and Criticism, an upper-level course, and Feature and Magazine Writing. On the first day of the Journalism class, I was already sitting at a desk, noticing that there seemed far more students than places to sit. When Dr. Ross walked into the room, he glanced at me and nudged his head towards the door. I left a notebook on my desk so someone leaning against the wall wouldn’t snag it and walked outside.
"Nell," he said in a low voice, "have you taken the prerequisite for this course?"
I hadn't, I told him. I didn't even know there was a prerequisite.
"This class is way over enrollment. I'm going to ask the students who haven't taken the other course to raise their hands. Those students will have to drop. Don't raise your hand."
I thanked him and we walked back into the classroom and five minutes later, over twenty students left the classroom. I was grateful I was allowed to stay.
The Film Theory class turned out to be the best class I've ever taken. We focused on horror films, from possession to slasher, from American to Italian horror, and I would sit in screenings, my fingers splayed in front of my eyes, watching the carnage of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, seeing the blood splatter spectacularly against white walls in the films of Dario Argento, and I'd return home shaken but feeling so tweaked and alive and I'd walk upstairs to my friends' bedrooms and I'd see they were planning PowerPoint presentations on the economy and I'd feel nothing but lucky, even in the middle of the night when I'd wake up sweating because of the nightmares my required viewing caused me to experience.
I would go to the library immediately after class and do all my reading for the course, and it was extensive. I'd curl up with one of the texts we had to buy when I was home, and soon I'd have long conversations with my friends about the penetration scenes in horror films and the theories about spectatorship discussed in Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the definitive book on gender in modern horror. I tried to convince my friend Nicole to watch I Spit On Your Grave with me, a movie written about extensively in the book, but when we got to Blockbuster after I'd finally convinced her to watch it with me, I was told the store didn't carry it and I was simultaneously disappointed and crazily relieved all at the same time.
Once I made arrangements to meet with Dr. Ross during office hours, but I woke up on the day with a bladder infection from hell. I stayed in bed while one of my friends got me medicine at CVS, writhing in pain, considering calling my professor to say I wouldn't be there, but I was too embarrassed. The next day I was back in class, and when he saw me he asked where I'd been the day before. I motioned him to come close.
"I had a bladder infection," I whispered in his ear. "I felt weird telling you that."
"I have a daughter. You shouldn't feel uncomfortable," he said back.
"Yes, but I'm not your daughter," I laughed, but then I apologized for bailing on our meeting.
He, along with my other Film professor, wrote me a recommendation letter for graduate school. He celebrated when I got into American and Miami and comforted me when I was unceremoniously rejected from NYU. He helped me write more effectively in the Feature and Magazine Writing class and he gave me hope that my future could one day involve me teaching a Film course of my own, which back then seemed like an unattainable holy grail of a goal and the only thing that might make me happy career-wise. Other than my family, my closest of friends, and Springsteen, he taught me more than anyone ever had.
Saying goodbye to him when I graduated wasn't easy. I had come to rely upon regular conversations with someone who applauded my intelligence and always encouraged me to continue to keep learning and watching and reading. Walking away on that last day, down the steps of Memorial Hall, I slid my hand over the wrought iron railing I had seen him lean upon before I knew him, before I knew his was an accent that came from Arkansas, before I knew what I had finally come to know on those last days of college.
As the months after graduation passed by in a confusing blur, I missed my professor more than I missed some of my friends.
We stayed in periodic touch over email. He would always sign his emails with his first name, but I could never call him by it; I always called him Dr. Ross, and I still do.
Once, maybe two of three years after graduation, about six of my friends and I drove down to Delaware to visit the campus. We stopped by the sorority house and smoked a joint at the kitchen table while the current sisters looked nervous and we had lunch at Kate's, one of our favorite restaurants that turned at night into one of our favorite bars. And then, as my friends walked up Main Street to browse the stores we'd once known so well, my friend Becky and I broke off and told the group we'd meet up with them later, that we were going to visit Memorial Hall.
I had checked online before our trip, and I knew Dr. Ross was teaching a class that day. We arrived at Memorial just as his class was ending, and she and I slipped into the room. He was at the front talking to a student and his eyes flicked over to us and then away and then quickly back and I saw a recognition flash across his features.
"Nell?" he asked.
"Hi, Dr. Ross!" I responded, and when the other students left, I introduced him to Becky and then the three of us went to his office and had a nice chat before we had to leave to meet up with our friends and make the return drive back home, away from the past, away from days that still brought comfort.
By that point, I had gotten my job and was teaching Film to seniors in high school. Soon after I got the job, I emailed Dr. Ross a copy of my syllabus and asked him if he could tell me where to find some of the civil defense and social hygiene films he screened in the class on the fifties I'd taken with him, and he put a bunch of them on tape and sent it to me.
I have that tape still.
The only courses I teach now are Film classes. And I've stolen from my professor shamelessly in terms of some of what I teach and the enthusiasm I have for my job. Each time I embark on my two-week long slasher unit, I smile, thinking about the person who brought this knowledge into my life, grateful I get to share it with my own students.
I would not be the same person or the same teacher if I hadn't had the experiences I had when I was a student. I might have listened when people scoffed and told me that teaching Film would never be a viable career. I wouldn't have more than thirty horror films in my vast movie collection. I wouldn't understand viewer identification the same way. I couldn't lie in bed next to a man I really care about as we watch episodes of Dexter on Netflix and tell him about the framing and blocking choices the director made in a scene that leaves us feeling like the all-powerful serial killer the series revolves around is in real danger in that moment.
I still rely on Dr. Ross and his incredible understanding of Film every now and then. Two years ago, I had a student in the International Baccalaureate program working on one of the key requirements, the extended essay. Her essay was on the auteur theory in Film, so I was her essay mentor. This student was bright and incredibly hardworking, the kind of kid who emailed me questions and drafts over the summer. She was confused by one part of the theory and I tried to explain it as best as I could, leading her through the dense texts that described what she was having a hard time with, but it was difficult to make her understand. I emailed Dr. Ross, asking how I could explain that portion of the theory in a way that simplified it, and he wrote me back, breaking it all down in a way that was thorough but finally intellectually digestible.
Just last week, I logged on to Facebook and saw I had a friend request. It was from Dr. Ross.
I graduated college eighteen years ago, a fact that makes no sense since it feels like it was yesterday or the day before. But it's been a long time, and seeing his friend request brought a huge smile to my face. We've written back and forth to one another a few times now, and he's just as funny and wise as he was back then. He's retired now, and he's more than earned the right to relax and to read anything other than papers written by students.
And I'm still calling him Dr. Ross.
I have a few former students I stay in touch with, real touch, not just liking their posts on Facebook. We talk about movies of course, but we also talk about life and love and work and I've seen some of them grow into genuine adults. It's a really beautiful thing to actually witness a person's evolution.
A few of my former students call me Nell, but most still call me Ms. Kalter, even when I tell them they can call me by my first name, that ten years have gone by, that I'm not their teacher anymore.
But the thing is, to them I'll always be their teacher, and knowing it makes me smile.
And it always makes me remember my own favorite teacher, and that makes me smile too.