For some odd reason, I remember we were eating meatloaf that night.
It was a few weeks before my freshman year in college. I had just created a moat out of my mashed potatoes and loaded the green peas on top (a family tradition) when the phone rang. Dad answered it and, with a puzzled look, handed the receiver to me. On the other end of the phone was a Vanderbilt professor.
“I see that you’re signed up for freshman English,” he said. He went on to add that he had read my entrance essay; he knew the caliber of my high school and he thought I would be bored. He was starting a freshman seminar—just 10 students—and wanted to know if I wanted to change my schedule and move into that.
My dad was dumbfounded that a professor would call a student.
So began four years of interaction with the professor who would become my advisor as an English major. Vereen Bell was the quintessential college professor—jeans, corduroy jacket with elbow patches and all. He introduced me to great American writers like Eudora Welty and Wallace Stevens. Over the years we had ardent discussions on symbolisms and themes; we had an ongoing dispute over Walker Percy’s The Second Coming: I thought it depressing while Dr. Bell found it uplifting. Sometimes our arguments over different interpretations of literature carried over from the classroom. I would see Dr. Bell striding across campus and stop him to offer my latest perspective.
“Maybe we see things differently because it’s a generational thing,” I said one day.
“Or maybe you’re just wrong,” he said wryly.
All the girls were in love with him—oh, not in an inappropriate way. We were infatuated with the intellectual bubble Dr. Bell presented. Within his class, fashion, social mores and relationship drama became moot. It didn’t matter how good (or bad) our hairstyle was, or whether we’d be getting a call from our latest crush: When we spoke, our thoughts, our words, our ideas—they mattered. They defined us, not the superficial trappings of a college coed.
In class, Dr. Bell would perch on the corner of his desk, clutch his hands, press his index fingers against his mouth and look skyward—then reach up his hand as if to grasp the cerebral word clouds hovering somewhere above him. Quite often I would jot down a word he used in order to consult a dictionary later. His was a soft Georgian lilt, and his voice somehow magically conveyed the idea that there was no greater pursuit than that of knowledge, of understanding. And no greater gift than the written word.
When Dr. Bell became department head, he inherited a remodeled office in a historic old building. As counterbalance to the headaches of leading a department, he had a lovely balcony opening off his office. We die-hard English majors, most of us Bell’s advisees, had a standing invitation to sit on the balcony on Friday afternoons, enjoy a beverage (ah, the days when the drinking age was 18!) and wax poetic on current events and literature. Having arrived at Vanderbilt in the 60s, Bell’s political activism was legendary. Vanderbilt was home of the Fugitive Poets (Robert Penn Warren being the most famous) and on those Friday afternoons, beneath the lofty magnolias’ sway, I felt at one with those literary giants whose feet had trod the same campus paths.
On Commencement Day, I remember only two things: the cicadas clinging to my graduation gown and my bitter disappointment at not winning the senior writing award; I needed the affirmation. Most of my friends were going off to med school, or to be engineers, to corporate careers, or to law school. I was the butt of many jokes because, after all, what kind of job can you get with an English degree? I needed hope that I was employable, that the world of the written word was not synonymous with the unemployment line. Yet, nervously searching the Commencement program, I realized I had not won.
After Commencement, I saw Dr. Bell at a campus reception. I told him I was disappointed I didn’t win (after all, he was the one who nominated me). With his trademark sardonic smile, he mused whether this would be the last disappointment life would throw at me. Touché. Then he said, “You know what you can do. I know what you can do” and asked to meet my parents.
News of Dr. Bell’s death a few weeks ago was a gut punch. Although I had not seen him in years, wherever he was and wherever I was, he was my mentor. It’s his voice I hear when I write— when I strive to be concise, when I seek precision in my language, when I search for the perfect metaphor. When our mentors pass away, who takes their place? Are we ever at a point of not needing mentoring? Are we to create our own roadmaps? That old silly song, “I Am My Own Grandpa” comes to mind.
I have the unusually good fortune of working at my alma mater. This week, I took a detour through campus on the way to my car. I passed Benson Hall, where the mighty magnolias and oaks still preside. I could hear Dr. Bell’s voice whispering in my memories: his Southern cadence that brought the poetry of Yeats and Auden to life. Surely somewhere deep inside me, in a place buried by tasks and responsibilities and life’s vicissitudes, there is the 18-year old coed who learned that words and literature offer us the power to transcend.
In honor of that girl, and the advisor who taught her so well, I’m rereading The Second Coming. I wonder if my perspective will have changed. Dr. Bell might win that argument after all.
To learn more about Vereen Bell: