An early encounter with a published author
Joseph Monninger was a tall, handsome white guy with a gruff voice, short dark hair, and a boxy beard. He was reserved, a little stern. He lived in New Hampshire, he had a girlfriend, perhaps a wife, he loved trout fishing and talked about it romantically. He was my writing teacher for a couple weeks one summer, during an academic program at Williams College for high school students, and the most astounding thing, at least for me: he was a novelist. I’d never met an novelist before.
My grandfather self-published several volumes of poetry – I’ve written about it elsewhere – and my other grandfather kept an extensive diary before World War II. Those weren’t the same. Here was a person who wrote fiction that became books, the kind you could buy in a store, crack open and smell. Of course, I had a sense people did that; books had authors, and perhaps some even made enough money to do it frequently. But here was one in the flesh. It was weird, kind of off-putting. What do you say? Like being told the person sitting across from you at dinner has been to the moon.
The role of modeling, I think, is easy to underestimate in humans’ formation. The value of seeing someone do something you’ve never seen anyone do before, especially if they resemble you, can be profoundly valuable. Though let’s be real: as a straight white dude, television and popular culture didn’t lack examples for me. Here’s Danielle N. Lee in the Scientific American:
I can certainly relate to this role model effect as an early career professional. My dissertation advisor was female, as well as nearly half of the other members of the Biology Department. All of them are heavy-hitters in their own right, which made it easier for me to envision myself as a scientist and professor. As I was preparing to apply for postdoc and teaching positions elsewhere, I was reminded to fully appreciate the beauty and support of a gender-balanced science department. The environment I experienced in graduate school is not the norm. However, I still can't emphasize enough how profoundly powerful it has been to me (and other female students) knowing these women.
Still, authors were rare birds.
I remember my senior year of high school, I took an advanced calculus class. Our teacher, Mr. Jockers, had gotten special dispensation to try something odd: he required his students to teach themselves. It was frightening. You’d be assigned a day ever two or three weeks when you needed to learn a portion of the textbook, then walk the class through it. Meanwhile, he stood in the back, guided occasionally, encouraged debate. If I remember right, the only way the school allowed him to continue his model was if, each year, every student in the class received the AP exam’s highest score. Remarkably, we all did.
At Williams, Joe was an ideal writing teacher. He made a bunch of sixteen-year-olds feel like we were writers, too, or could be someday. He cajoled, joked, demanded. He didn’t want to be friends with us; he was very much an up-right adult. One night he caught me running back to the dorm, post-curfew. I’d been making out with my girlfriend on a soccer field. He chuckled at the grass stains on my pants, let me in, and didn’t say anything. Was there ever a moment I consciously decided I wanted to be a writer? Not that I remember. But I was definitely very, very lucky to meet certain people along the way.
Three weeks into the program, Joe showed up to class, having shaved off his beard on a whim. It was hard to recognize him. A lot of the girls were aghast. Who the hell was this weirdo?
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In tomorrow’s supplement for supporters:
A bunch of new songs recommended by a teenage DJ
The week in oddball online reads
An archive of annotated luxury-good advertisements
What the what
Meditations in an Emergency is a weekly short essay about something beautiful from author Rosecrans Baldwin. Supporters receive a Sunday supplement with three-plus ideas of things to love and a longer piece once a month from the road, for some inbox wanderlust ⛰️