I recently mentioned a former college professor of mine in a post, and have since been thinking a great deal about her.
My time with the wonderful poet, Alice Friman, was brief. Her impact on me was not. For a very, very small town girl in 1987, who really had only written about things like daisies and amateur relationships with potheads, meeting a tough New Yorker with decades of magnificent words and experiences and success behind her was pretty heady stuff.
I was a freshman at the University of Indianapolis when I found myself in a creative writing class taught by Alice. To be honest, the real draw to taking the class was a theology major named Ted, but it wasn’t long before the thin, dark-haired, commanding woman in the room captured my attention. Frankly, that was the first time ever that intellect trumped Drakkar Noir in the battle for my brain. She was smart and fiery. She gave an aura of sexy-funny-tough through her words and phrases, and I had never once considered a woman could be sexy without lipgloss and gum and plastic earrings.
The class was a night class, and one warm fall evening we took a field trip to a local grocery store. Our assignment? Buy a food. Write about it. Describe its color, texture, taste. My first purchase was fresh pineapple, and sitting back in the classroom, next to Ted, I wrote my first moderately scandalous, inappropriate piece of poetry. She asked me to return to the store, where I bought a radish, and with her help, I wrote a nice piece about heartburn.
She was the first teacher, possibly the first adult, to see anything in me beyond a silly, disorganized bundle of unused potential. She encouraged me to “see things as a photograph”, and turn the images in my brain into a beautiful flow of words. Perhaps I am overestimating myself. Maybe she actually did see me as just another oversexed Midwestern kid, but she never said as much. She made me feel intelligent and talented and no one – and I mean no one – had ever made me feel that way. That, in itself, is the hallmark of a great teacher.
The seeds she planted in me that year grew slowly. I admit that I did nearly everything in my power to kill them. I quit college to get married only a couple of years later. I had children very soon after that. I walked away from all that Alice taught me about Sylvia Plath and Erica Jong and hooked up with the likes of Martha Stewart. I all but stopped writing poetry and began taking line dance lessons. Although I hid them well with the disguise of a Republican-Jesus Wife, those seeds of knowledge-lust remained. Eventually, the kids grew, the marriage did not, and I found myself writing again. And once, by chance, I found Alice again.
I had taken my kids to the library in the horrible little town in which we were living, and much to my surprise, her face was on a flyer on the door. She was speaking there that evening about her book, Inverted Fire. Hours away from Indianapolis, years away from my youth, she miraculously appeared in my life at just the right time. I listened to her that night and grew restless in my soul. We spoke briefly. She at least pretended to remember me. Whether she truly did or not I will never know, nor does it matter. At that moment she inspired me and I returned to school.
We haven’t spoken since that night, and it only know where she might be through an occasional Google search. I’m quite certain she didn’t become a hobo, as she once admitted to me was her goal in life. I’m even more certain she has inspired many more women to become bold and strong. Being a hobo was a good idea, but being Alice Friman, a professor of great words, is even better.
Another hallmark of a great teacher is that when a student moves on, the teacher remains. Her words and advice still guide me. Her persona and success still intrigue me. Wherever in the world Alice Friman may be, she will forever teach me.