I chose a college where freshmen could substitute a science course for the math requirement. It seemed like the lesser challenge.
The first day of Biology 101, a diminutive elderly woman with white hair walked into the classroom and, without a word to any of us seated in the tiered amphitheater, wrote on the blackboard:
“All things near or far, hiddenly, to each other linked are. That thou canst not touch a flower without troubling a star.” –Francis Thompson
I took a quick glance around. Was anyone else in love? Not with Biology 101. But with Dr. Katie Yaw? Clearly, our science professor possessed a poet’s soul. Later, I would learn she had omitted three words. The actual quote is, “All things by immortal power, near or far, hiddenly to each other linked are.” A poet’s soul but a scientist at heart.
Cue the pigs. I’d been in an accelerated zoology class in high school, so the year before I had arrived on campus, we had dissected a sheep’s brain, an ox eye, and a fetal pig. Fun. So fun…
End-of-the-year relief had the remains of specimens trussed up in friends’ lockers, left on chair seats in typing with anonymous notes, and I thought that with high school graduation, I was done with dissection, but no.
At our next class in Dunning Hall, Dr. Yaw presented each of us with our own personal pig in a plastic bag of formaldehyde. And after working on our pigs in class (tiny blue veins, little red arteries, still an incomprehensible map the second time around), we were told there was no space to store the critters in the lab, and we were to keep them in our dorm rooms. I put mine under my bed where the bag leaked, and the formaldehyde trickled across the floor to my roommate, April Kravetz’s bed. We were freshmen on our own, no parents to order us around. I don’t remember opting to scrub the floor or double bag, but I do remember making cups of Swiss Miss and watching April spray the trail with Right Guard.
This past Friday night, I found myself driving back to Washington College for a reception arranged for students and teachers in the school’s WC ALL program to mingle with others in these special interest classes. I admit I had dressed with care—wanting to feel confident and comfortable in my own skin meeting strangers.
It was windy. A hurricane offshore. Rain coming. I had to stop for gas. Then, because I was a little late, I had to park at the far end of a huge gravel lot and tip-toe over the rocks while the wind off the Chester whipped about me so that I was pretty sure there’d been some wild redistribution of hair and clothes when I finally pulled open the door to the Environmental Center.
Approximately 50 people stood in clusters, deeply engaged in conversation. Well, I thought, feeling very much on my own, these must be my fellow students. I can’t wait to meet them!
Where’s the bar?
I secured a glass of wine, off-loaded my purse in a nearby conference room, and found myself gazing out the huge glass wall of windows at the water, gearing up for the awkward approach to partygoers in closed circuits of conversation—the lingering in their orbit– the silent eye contact, waiting for someone to acknowledge the satellite, the exoplanet, when a man with a friendly smile came up and asked, “Excuse me, is your name Laura?”
As it turned out, Jeff and I had gone to college together for two of our 4 years, and although we had not crossed paths then, he reads this column. “I recognized you,” he said. I was incredulous but charmed, flattered even. We talked about professors who had changed our lives, one in common, and then Jeff told me that another favorite English professor was at the reception as well.
To my delight, Jeff pointed out Dr. Gillin, whom I swear, after decades and decades (and okay, decades), had barely changed. Still remarkably handsome. His thick hair had turned a sophisticated white, but everything else was the same. I stuck out my hand and said, laughing, “Dr. Gillin! You were my professor, like, half a century ago, and it’s so nice to see you!” and without missing a beat, Professor Gillin replied, “Yes, of course, I remember you.”
The wine had kicked in, and this struck me as hilarious. Instantaneously gallant, instinctively kind, and surely not true. I decided to adopt this response myself to students I wish I remembered but don’t. We were chatting when a woman touched me on the arm and said, “Excuse me, are you Laura Oliver?” And I thought, Why yes, I am, and it’s starting to feel good to be me! Apparently, two strangers have recognized me, and my professor from sophomore year, otherwise known as the Jurassic Period, remembers me.
This lovely woman turned out to be a current writing client of mine whom I’ve never met in person, not even on Zoom, so it was a revelation to associate her face with her name.
I headed home not long after this, having had a wonderful time. Why? Because some of those college years had been lonely and sad. I’d felt uncool among the cool, uptight among the hip, tightly wound and wounded when I should have been dancing, staying up all night, driving to Florida with rowdy girlfriends on spring break (and let’s face it, a little weed might have improved my attitude immensely). Instead, I wrote sonnets and villanelles.
Pulling out of the gravel lot, I was charmed by the gift of this life, and I want you to be as well. This school has grown exponentially. The whole time I’ve been out in the world trying to nurture young lives, grow a calling, the school has been, too. And until I got to the Chester River Bridge, I could believe Dr. Gillin actually remembered me, and maybe, maybe he does. And I couldn’t stop smiling that Jeff and I both had had the world of poetry cracked open for us by the same professor—a professor who came to my wedding, I told Jeff, and a professor who encouraged me to move back here, Jeff said.
We live in this utterly unique era—it will not come again. We know enough to recognize the expansion of the universe is accelerating; 60,000 stars a second disappear from the sky, and we will never catch them. Someday, were our species to survive the nova of our sun, perhaps on a planet in the Trappist System, we will see only our own galaxy. The background microwave radiation will have hushed, and looking up at the heavens, future astronomers will find no evidence that other worlds ever existed. They will have flown beyond our horizon. Beyond memory, beyond knowing.
But not yet.
As the soybean fields roll by on Route 213, I feel the uniqueness of this time and I’m grateful. Born earlier and we would not have been able to track down people from our youth—to recover with the touch of a computer keyboard, the kids with whom we built forts in the woods, the MIA’s from high school conversational French, our first jobs, college—the friends who disappeared over the event horizon. We would not have the joy of reconnecting with the people who stood near us on the launch pad of our lives to find out we are still in the same orbit.
I can’t stop smiling—something never really lost has been found. All things near or far, hiddenly to each other, linked are.
That thou canst not touch a flower without troubling a star.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.