Exploring and Encouraging a Healthy Life Marked with Joy

Posts tagged ‘Georgia Southern University’

Remembering Peter this Teacher Appreciation Week

It never fails.  And I’m glad it doesn’t.  Whenever I see yellow gladioli, I think of Peter.  I saw some today.

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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.

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After his passing, I reminisced about Peter’s impact on my life.  Here’s that remembrance:

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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.

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“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!”]

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Here we are after I defended my dissertation:

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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.

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Rest peacefully, Peter.  We remember you with appreciation and love.

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Related Post:  The Viewing & the Circle of Life

88 Reasons to Love the Carters

Last night I drove through the monsoon up to my old stomping ground, Georgia Southern University, to hear former President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter speak.

“An Evening with the Carters: A Conversation with the Former President and First Lady”

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Oh. My. Goodness. What an incredibly encouraging evening. Did you know that President Carter is 88 years of age? And going stronger than ever! (I’m just … “39” yet had to detour through Wendy’s drive-thru and grab a #1 with cheese just to get enough energy to calm my rain-soaked nerves and waddle into the Hanner Gym in some measure of consciousness.)

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I loved how the Carters were both entertaining and issues-specific on point. They divided the evening into segments of their life journey–with the President talking about their early years before the White House, followed by Mrs. Carter discussing their years in Washington. They then took turns sharing about their work with The Carter Center in Atlanta, dealing with many issues which other organizations don’t touch (eradication of tropical diseases, for example). The packed house interrupted the talk with applause at least a dozen times–and deservedly so. President Carter kept emphasizing the dire need for a return to non-partisan cooperation in our political world, as well as the responsiblity that each of us has to hold our politicians responsible for the decisions they make and the laws they pass.

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They seemed SO real, SO logical, SO much in touch with the possibility of changing the world into a better, healthier place.

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The coolest part of the evening: how this couple, who have been married over 60 years, kept deferring to one another. Their respect and love for each other came though so very clearly. (“Asking Rosalynn to marry me was the best decision I ever made.”) (“I grieved when Jimmy wasn’t re-elected. I know he would have been a better president than the one who won.”)

I sat next to this friendly, talkative couple, Leon and Morrie Shelkoff. Morrie is a school teacher, and Leon ran Leon’s Menswear in the Statesboro Mall for thirty years. They exuded happiness–look at those smiles!

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I drove back down I-16 to Savannah with buoyed spirits and a joyful respect for compassionate leadership.

(P.S. I met then-Governor Carter at a Governor’s Honors Luncheon way back when I was in high school. Even as a teenager, I had great admiration for the man.)

NealNotes on Neal’s KeyNote

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I had a great time at Friday’s Student Success in Writing Conference here in Savannah.  And I delivered the Keynote Address!

Here’s the blurb from the conference website:

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“Teaching Life: the Heart, the Art”

 Dr. Neal Saye.  Associate Professor Emeritus of Writing and Linguistics Georgia Southern University.  Adjunct Professor, Savannah College of Art & Design

Chair or co-chair of the Student Success conference for much of its 14-year history, Neal was also a key member of its founding committee. He reported on these experiences in “Pearls and Perils of Starting a Conference” (co-presented with Mary Marwitz and Michael Mills) at a Popular Culture Association in the South in Jacksonville, Florida. He brought the same dedication to running this conference as he did to his teaching philosophy. A dedicated blogger, Neal posted to his Facebook and WordPress sites: “My passion in life is learning about/exploring/playing with the subjects of joy and happiness. For the past five years or so, I have used this subject to inform my pedagogy and my day-to-day classroom assignments and activities. What has happened is that teaching about happiness has made me (and I hope my students) happier. Thus my passion spilled over into my teaching, which came rushing back into my life.”

Now an associate professor emeritus after 24 years of teaching writing at Georgia Southern University, Neal has returned to academia as an adjunct professor for the Savannah College of Art & Design. In addition to his well deserved emeritus designation, Neal’s honors and awards include Georgia Southern University Professor of the Year, 2010 and 1993; Dorothy Smith Golden Award for Teaching Excellence, Writing and Linguistics Department, 2003; Georgia Southern University Award for Excellence in Contributions to Instruction, 2001; “Most Approachable Professor” Award, Success-In-U Program, 1994; and “Funniest Professor” Award, Success-In-U Program, 1993. Neal earned his Ed.D. in Curriculum Studies/Cultural Studies in 2002. After earning dual B.S. degrees in English and Biology from Berry College, Neal came to Georgia Southern to earn his M.A. in English Language and Literature.

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Here I am at the podium about two seconds after being introduced:

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Kidding.  I actually loved all 35 minutes of it!  The audience was attentive, fun and laughed and ooohed at all the right places.  I used loads of technology with videos, pics and graphics–which all flowed seamlessly.  I’ll post the text of the talk a bit later (in case anyone’s interested) when I clean it up a bit for publishing.  For now here are some photos.

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The conference was held at the beautiful Coastal Georgia Center.

Here’s what I wore.  Up to the last minute, I was trying to decide between hip or plain ole.

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I know.  Probably too much.  But I wore a jacket over it.  But that eyeball kept looking out at people.

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(Armani, borrowed from son-in-law.)

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I loved catching up with former Georgia Southern colleagues.  Here I am with good buddy Mary Marwitz, who introduced me:

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(Isn’t that a cool scarf?)  And with Interim Writing and Linguistics Department Chair Phyllis Dallas:

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Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Curtis Ricker (and fellow grandfather):

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Chatting with J. Marie Lutz from Continuing Education and fellow GSU retiree Nancy Dessommes:

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And trying to listen in, unseen, on private conversations:

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Where are all the people?  Nobody’s here!

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Another fellow retiree Mary Hadley:

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GSU Provost Jean Bartels:

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Former co-worker and blog commenter Rachel VanHorn Leroy:

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Coolest tie at conference:

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What a crowd showed up!

Here’s a video I used about teachers dancing behind students:

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And here are a few quotes from the address:

“We find what we’re looking for.”

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“Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.”

Caring for Students 101 should be a required course in all teacher education programs.”

“The student is more important than the subject being taught.”

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A great time!

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