Posted in Life Experiences

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.


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

Posted in Uncategorized

Steve Jobs Didn’t Use Deodorant

Today someone asked me what I am currently reading.  Well, I like to try to have both a fiction and a nonfiction book going at the same time.  [Especially if the fiction book I am reading is trash.  (Oh gosh, did I really read the first Twilight book?  Followed quickly by each of the others?  And did Bella REALLY voluntarily become a vampire?  I mean, SERIOUSLY?  HELLO!  With no consideration as to whether she would continue to have a soul?!)  The reason I like a nonfiction book at the same time I am reading a trashy fiction one is simple, and in my opinion brilliant: I then have the nonfiction book ready to read on the elliptical machine at the gym, so that people on each side of me will think I’m smart, not someone who would read love stories about vampires, for heaven’s sake.  However, if I’m not currently reading a nonfiction book, and need to workout, I just take the Bible to the gym, a really big one with the words of Jesus in red letters.]

Back to the topic at hand.  The older I get, the more confused I am about the categories of fiction and nonfiction.  I used to think, let’s say, that U.S. history was nonfiction.  Right?  All objective-y and such.  But really, doesn’t it depend on the history tellers, and their perspectives?   More often than not, those tellers of history are men, thus history/HISstory.  And maybe it’s because I raised two daughters, but I think women surely must have had something to do with U.S. history.  Surely there’s also such a thing as herstory/HERstory.

Here (finally, whew) is what I am currently reading:






First, the Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson (who, by the way, will be at the upcoming Savannah Book Festival).  I’m only about a hundred pages in so far (I thought Harry Potter was heavy!), but the book really is fascinating.  Not to gossip too much, but it seems that in the early 70’s, when he started working for Atari, Jobs was, according to one source quoted by Isaacson, a “hippie with b.o.” who believed his fruit-heavy vegetarian diet would prevent both mucus and body odor, even without deodorant and showering.  For some reason, that tidbit of info makes me respect Jobs and his staunch individuality even more.  (Also it makes me feel a little proud of my older daughter Amy who stopped shaving her legs one summer when she went to study abroad in Italy.  She also, Steve Job-ishly, stopped using deodorant and went to antiperspirants only–or maybe it was the other way around.  I never understood the difference.)  I’ll let you know when I get to the parts of the book about Macs and Ipods and such.






The second book, Live What You Love: Notes from a Passionate Life, by Bob and Melinda Blanchard, is a beautifully encouraging examination of how one couple decided to do what they really wanted to do in their lives, from moving to Anguilla and opening up a restaurant to appearing on NBC’s Today show in a wedding cake contest.  I love this Blanchard statement: “Take chances for the things you care about.”






Finally, I’m reading (okay, I read; it takes less than ten minutes) Edward Monkton’s little The Pig of Happiness.  It’s the tale of a pig who decides to become an extraordinary pig: “I shall see the best in EVERYONE and EVERYTHING.”  I’m actually considering using it as a textbook.  Read it!  (At the checkout line at Barnes and Noble if you don’t want to buy it.)

I adore a good read. 

P.S.  I just hope that somebody doesn’t start writing phenomenonally bestselling stories about pig vampires (with souls!) who are living their love and communicating via cutting edge IPigPhones.

P.S.S.   Listen, forget that first P.S.  AND DON’T STEAL THAT IDEA FROM ME.