Recent high school graduations have inspired me to reflect on my transition to college, an influential professor, and a book that has stayed with me since then. As soon as I entered high school, I was ready to graduate. I dreamt of moving out of state and the independence college would offer me. I was ready for the culture and adventure of being in the world on my own.
Most people don’t discuss negative college experiences; college is supposed to be a party. But that first year, for me, was a black hole in which I sunk.
I entered Vandy on the pre-med path, which meant 8AM calculus and chemistry classes - classes that I didn’t want to wake up for because I hated and didn’t excel in the subject matter. (I now tell all of my students to take math their senior years - I took pre-cal my junior year and no math my senior year...) For the first time in my life, I was below average. I shot my GPA; I couldn’t rush because it was so low. And around Spring Break, the anxiety attacks began - room-spinning, heart-pounding, sitting-in-the-hallway-in-case-I-passed-out panic attacks. This wasn’t college - it couldn’t be.
Fortunately, when I went to my dean to ask permission to take physics at a community college over the summer, she actually took an interest and examined my grades and courses. I still remember the sports analogy she used - she said that I probably didn’t play basketball (I’m 5’1”) and that maybe I shouldn’t be pre-med either. It was clear that I was focusing on pre-med to please my parents and that the arts were my strength and passion. So, after some tears, from myself, and some disappointment, from my mom and dad, I ventured from the pre-med track, and I majored in English and Art History.
My grades steadily improved, as did my experiences, and in the spring of my sophomore year, the heavens parted when I stepped into my contemporary British novel course with Professor Halperin. The man is brilliant. His professional honors include the Guggenheim Fellow (twice), National Book Award for Non-Fiction (short-listed), Pulitzer Prize for Biography (short-listed; twice), and the Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Yet, he was never pretentious or intimidating; he was kind, supportive, and funny, and he taught me more about reading, writing, and life than anyone else had thus far. He allowed for different learning styles; he never forced anyone to speak, which appealed to me because my brain works better when writing than when speaking. He also allowed rewrites on the 2 or so essays that made up the majority of our grades. That said, he was tough. He had high expectations, and my writing benefited tremendously.
I vividly remember him handing back the first papers we wrote for that course because, when the girl sitting next to me received hers, every page had a giant red X through it. And I thought - “oh shit.” I started out writing B- papers and rewriting my way to an A-, but by the time I graduated, I was writing A papers without rewrites. In addition to the girl’s paper that was entirely crossed out, another memorable moment from that first course was when he took grammatically ambiguous sentences from our essays and shared them with the class. It was anonymous - but when he read the sentence from my paper and laughed, anyone who had any question about whose essay it was just had to look at my face - which I’m sure was a shade of crimson. However, I will always remember that “people lie and chickens lay.”
Professor Halperin retired the year I graduated; in an interview with him for the Vanderbilt Hustler, he expressed that "literature is not just a way to learn but a way to understand life. Through the greatest minds history has yet to produce, we can learn so much... Reading good literature prepares you to live your life." This passion was evident in his teaching, and as a 20-year-old sitting in his class, I was convinced that literature could provide me with everything I needed to know about human nature and the world around me. So, it's not surprising that the novels, Atonement in particular, I read with him have made a lasting impression.
I read Ian McEwan's Atonement for the first time during my first course with Halperin, and I’ve read it at least twice more since and taught it once. Being in such a transitional time of my life, I had empathy for the novel's focus on how one day, one defining moment, can change and shape the lives of a person and those around him or her forever. At that time, I felt like I was constantly on the precipice of either enhancing or destroying my future, and I recognized how one mistake, in perception or action, could haunt me for the rest of my life. I didn't want to end up like Briony - plagued by guilt and living to atone.
Furthermore, with Professor Halperin's aid, I became enraptured with the concept that novelists (and artists) can make readers think about their lives in ways they never have - which is why, when my parents divorced, I suggested one of them read Joanna Trollope's Marrying the Mistress and the other read Penelope Lively's Heat Wave; I thought those texts might help them gain some perspective - both novels I read in this first course with Professor Halperin. In one of his lectures, Halperin quoted Oscar Wilde, who said that "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life." Art is more real than life. We cannot interpret our own lives; we're too subjective, but art tells us what our lives are like better than we can. I have read novels that made me completely reconsider my ideologies, and in some cases, having now lived situations portrayed in literature, I can see how true those portrayals are. On the other hand, McEwan reminds the reader that all fiction is fiction. Fiction is arbitrary; a writer can tell you anything he or she wants, and yet, paradoxically, there is so much insight to be gained from reading it.
Lastly, McEwan renders Atonement's psychological nature beautifully. I appreciate McEwan's handle on abnormal psychology; emotional displacement, destructive behavior, jealousy, and guilt flood the narrative. Human nature is so mercurial; it is almost impossible to prevent emotions from swaying us one way or another, but it is important to at least be cognizant of the effect our emotions, as well as our imaginations, have over our perceptions and actions. Atonement opens with a quote from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which attacks literature that is too fanciful and not grounded in reality. The imagination must be controlled; otherwise, you're more likely to misinterpret the real world. Briony's life ends with brain disease, which is a poignant conclusion for one who has overused her brain to disastrous ends.
The summer following this course, I read McEwan's Enduring Love, which Professor Halperin suggested to us in one of his lectures. I have now read multiple McEwan novels, and he is one of my all time favorite authors. McEwan’s writing puts my brain in overdrive, and the intellectual stimulation that Atonement and Professor Halperin evoked inspired my initial love for McEwan's writing.
I am pretty sure I took a class with Professor Halperin every semester after that spring. And I still think of him anytime someone uses the word impact as a verb (Halperin’s GUIDELINES FOR PAPERS - #1: Do not use nouns (“impact,” “access”) or other parts of speech as verbs), which simultaneously makes me cringe and smile. I hope everyone encounters a professor that stays with them well beyond college. One that makes you smile when you think of him or her because smiling is exactly what I'm doing right now.
McEwan, Ian. Atonement. New York: Anchor Books, 2001.
Solomon, Andrew. "English Professor Reflects on 24-year Career at Vandy." Vanderbilt Hustler. Vanderbilt University, 19 Apr. 2007. Web. 2 June 2016. <http://www.vanderbilthustler.com/news/article_80247910-0e5f-5426-bd25-8670b0dedcf3.html>.