I’ve written before about my beloved teacher James Valhouli, the first person who really made me believe I had something to say. Sitting at my desk here, I look right at a photograph of Mr. Valhouli. He was without a doubt the most important teacher I’ve ever had, and I still think about him every single day. I’ve also written about Andre Dubus, a writer who meant a great deal to Mr. Valhouli and whose eulogy at my teacher’s funeral left an indelible impression on me.
So it was with enormous anticipation that I went this week to hear Andre Dubus III read from his new memoir, Townie. I’ve heard terrific things about the work, most materially from my writing group friend, idol, and general can-always-be-trusted-in-matters-of-books friend, Katherine. Andre Dubus III blew me away. He is charismatic, funny, and brilliant, peppering his Haverhill accent and salt-of-the-earth personality with from-memory quotations from the likes of Richard Russo and Flannery O’Connor. I cannot wait to read his story. When he signed my copy, I shared my vivid memory of his father. It turns out Andre was at the funeral himself, and Mr. Valhouli appears in Townie; this single slender detail was enough to fill me with both kinship and nostalgia.
I headed home steeped in these memories, thinking of how Exeter’s importance to me grows in parallel to my distance from the years I spent there. As I get older I appreciate more and more the enormous impact the place had on me. It’s the place in the world where I was most baldly lonely, and it has also been the most influential in setting the course of my adult live. The awakening that took place inside me around Mr. Valhouli’s Harkness table, in his classroom with Cavafy’s Ithaka hanging on the wall, was the essential one.
What’s fascinating to me is that this intellectual birth occurred in a place where I had so few important relationships. In fact, it’s become a bit of a tomb in my memory, a mausoleum of the mind, a place whose defining characteristic is the fact that I was lonely there. But the fact is this isn’t right. I fell in love with a boy for the first time at Exeter (well, I thought so at the time. time offers perspective. regardless, it was my first “real” relationship.). There are very, very few people in my life I’ve ever felt this way about. He then broke my heart. It’s not a coincidence that my senior year, hurting and sad and wondering if I’d ever recover from my stunned sense of betrayal, I threw myself into my English class with the great teacher called Mr. Valhouli. The universe took care of me, filling every single empty and broken space in me with language and literature, with conversation over hot tea in Mr. Valhouli’s family’s home, with his small, cramped writing in the margins of my papers, with his lively black eyes, somehow fiercely animated and profoundly compassionate at the same time when he looked at me.
And as I drove home, the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses came on the radio. Exeter was already pulsing through my veins and a memory overtook me so vividly it took my breath away. I focus so much in my memory on the life of the mind that has come to define my two years at Exeter that I rarely remember the awakening of the heart that took place there too. I was going home to London for Christmas vacation, desperately anxious to say goodbye to my first boyfriend for what felt like the eternity of two weeks. We sat in the dining hall, watching the minutes tick towards the time my bus left for Logan, and I felt tears well up in my chest. I begged him to write me a note telling me he loved me, so that I could carry it with me while we were apart. He was unenthusiastic about this idea, which, though it now seems understandable, upset me at the time.
As we bickered about this, he doodled on a corner of his notebook. He was an artist who loved to draw and cartoon, and this was characteristic. I didn’t even look at what he was drawing. Hours later, on the airplane headed to London, I found a folded piece of notebook paper in my bag. I don’t know when he slipped it there. In his handwriting that I’d recognize even now, he’d written, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.
I remember feeling touched though a bit dismayed that he could not say Those Big Words. Thinking back on that gesture, however, it seems like one of the most romantic I’ve ever received. Dubus said something in his comments about how memoirists ought to play with the facts of their life, about how memoir is not autobiography. And I agree. When I think back on the arc of my life, Exeter was about Mr. Valhouli, about Andre Dubus, about the power of both language and pedagogy, about the impact someone who really believes in you can have on your entire life. But tonight I’m also remembering the parts of the story that I haven’t told much, to others or to myself, those details about the pencil on looseleaf paper and the wild horses.