It never fails. And I’m glad it doesn’t. Whenever I see yellow gladioli, I think of Peter. I saw some today.
Peter Christopher taught creative writing in the Department of Writing and Linguistics up at Georgia Southern University (where I taught for twenty-four years). He was a colleague and a friend and the fiction person on my dissertation committee when I got my doctorate.
And Peter died far too early in 2008 of liver cancer.
After his passing, I reminisced about Peter’s impact on my life. Here’s that remembrance:
Peter, “Something Blooming, Something Found” and the Glorious Gladioli
Somehow, yin-yangishly I suppose, Peter’s smile carries both playful humor and serious authority as he says to me, “Here’s what I want you to do, Neal.”
“Take all that,” Peter points at the pages and pages of text I have been rather proudly producing for weeks before asking/begging him to be the fiction person on my dissertation committee, “and put it aside–or throw it away.”
My dissertation is going to be an examination of how fiction can be used as a type of educational research, as a way of knowing. And as part of my work, I want to write a novella which illustrates, through the characters and plot, various educational stances I have studied and enjoyed. But I’m not a fiction writer, and I don’t really know how to get there. I want Peter to sort of help quickly guide me through the process, tell me I can do it, be a cheerleader of sorts.
“Uh, well, you mean I’m not going to be able to use this?”
“Maybe. We’ll see. But for now I want you to forget everything you’ve written and have planned so far. Here’s your homework.” Again the smile–the smile that is beginning to get on my nerves just a little. “For two weeks and for about an hour or so a day, I want you to freewrite.”
“You mean, just write about this novella idea I have?”
“No, Neal, freewrite about you. About your life, what’s going on, what’s been, what’s to come. About your inside life. Your outside life. Your family. Work. Friends. Faith. Anything that comes to mind. Don’t stop for an hour–just write.”
My thoughts at this moment: “Peter, are you CRAZY? I am teaching full time. I am on a deadline. I do not have the time or interest to play your little freewriting game. I just want to get this thing finished. So no, I CAN’T and I WON’T do that. And by the way, you’re supposed to just ENCOURAGE me, be my CHEERLEADER.”
My words at this moment: “Oh, okay.”
After the frustratingly productive freewriting, which ends up changing in wonderful ways the entire story I will tell, Peter and I begin three months of tortuous joy. I learn from a master. Our weekly schedule goes something like this:
1. Neal spends hours and hours and hours writing for a week. Usually trying to get one scene done.
2. Neal puts his folder of work (pretty good work in Neal’s mind) into Peter’s mailbox at the end of the day.
3. The next afternoon Neal gets up from his desk and walks halfway across the hall towards Peter’s office, changes his mind and walks back to his own office and sits down.
4. Neal feels silly at this childish behavior, gets up again and walks three-forths the way to Peter’s office, then returns to his own office once again.
5. Neal calls himself all sorts of shaming names and finally walks all the way into Peter’s office, often simply because Peter has seen him walking back and forth, and tells him to COME IN.
6. Peter smiles.
7. Peter speaks: “I can tell you put a lot of work into this, Neal. But….”
8. Neal revises. And revises. And revises.
9. Neal realizes Peter is gifted beyond measure.
When we approach the end of the novella work, and I am fretting over a title for it, Peter tells me with a laugh, “Don’t worry about that. I’m good with titles. I’ll come up with one. My gift.”
One of the young characters in my story, Kellie, LOVES flowers, grows them everywhere she can. Her favorite is the yellow gladiolus. (“It stands up in a garden. It’s not afraid to be seen.”) And since my tale shows a small group of high school students who come to realize that they have viable voices which are important and should/must be heard, Peter names my novella, “Something Blooming, Something Found.”
I am nervous as the dissertation defense begins. I have foolishly invited folks from across campus to attend and quite a few are here. Days before, when I asked Peter his advice about defending, he said that I should forget the negative concept of defense and just let my novella’s characters speak. So that’s what I do.
I look at all those gathered in the Dean’s Conference Room in the College of Ed, take a deep breath, and begin my defenseless defense. As I start, I see and sense Peter (“rock” in Greek) confer upon me three things: his trademark encouraging smile; a subtle and hidden to all but me “you-can-do-it!” thumbs up; and the realization, as my characters begin to breathe and speak, that something is blooming in me, and I am finding something, something I have not really grasped or undertsood until this moment in this room: I am a writer, not just a teacher of writing.
The next day, I walk into Peter’s office (without the ridiculous false starts) and present him with a bouquet of proud yellow gladioli. He hoots in delight. Hours later I hear a tap on my door, look up, and there he stands.
“Neal, I have been sitting at my desk looking at your flowers. Really looking at them. Seeing them. They’re lovely. They are so intricate, the way they turn and twist,” he says as he makes a circular gesture with one hand.
“And there’s really only one word to describe them: GLORIOUS. They are glorious. Thank You.”
We chat and laugh a while. Then Peter leaves.
But that’s okay. He’s just across the hall.
[I write this in present tense for two reasons: One, Peter has me write my novella in present tense. And two, in ways that are important, perhaps most important, transcendent, eternal, Peter is with us. Ever will be. His smile that you and I came to appreciate so so much. His always gentle spirit. His instruction he gave to so many. His embodiment of encouragement. His model of living. And His beautiful closing for each email and note he penned–“All thrive!”]
Here we are after I defended my dissertation:
On a whim, right before I published this post a few moments ago, I typed “GSU + Peter Christopher” in a search engine. A Rate My Professor link from 2008 popped up. One student wrote:
PC was my mentor. I took every writing class he taught. Writing was only a minor when I went to GSU… I would have majored if I could have. He was a dear friend. He taught me more than just how to be a good writer, he taught me how to love life — to have a passion for life. He is gone from this earth, but never from my heart.
Rest peacefully, Peter. We remember you with appreciation and love.
Related Post: The Viewing & the Circle of Life