Saying Goodbye to a Mentor and Friend

April 24, 2014 § 2 Comments

A hard week. A sad week. A celebratory week. Tuesday, I said goodbye to my mentor and friend, poet and professor, Ellen Arl. I had the privilege of making comments at her service. I have posted them below.

     Twenty years ago, I entered a USC Sumter classroom, my head down, chewing on my lip, praying the professor sitting center stage at the front would not notice me. I slipped into a far desk and shuffled papers across its marred surface.

     “Mrs. Richardson?” The voice called from the front.

     Oh, God, I thought. She knows my name.

     “Yes, m’am,” I muttered, focused on the patchwork of initials carved into the Formica desk top.

     “Mrs. Richardson, come up here,” she commanded.

     I yearned to be anywhere else. But I was of a generation that “minded the teacher,” so I stumbled from my desk. The room suddenly void of oxygen.

     Walking that ‘green mile’ to the front, I asked myself first, why had I thought I could handle an Advanced Creative Writing class and second, why had I presumed I could survive Ms. Ellen Arl. The student rumor mill broadcasted that few survived the first week of her classes, much less a whole semester.

     I cleared my throat; my eyes scanned her desk, the floor, her face, then quickly back down again to the floor, the door, and my shoes.

     “I understand you want to be a writer,” she said.

     “uh,um….”

     “Are you not sure, Mrs. Richardson?”

     “Uh,uh, yes, m’am.”

     “Then let’s make you a writer.”

     I peeped up at her. She smiled a big, lots-of-teeth smile.

     Over the next two years and several other classes under Ms. Arl, I toiled under that smile. She, in turn, chiseled, sliced, cut, and diced EVERY SINGLE WORD I submitted. There were times I cried. Times I cursed. Times I wanted to run as far away as I could get from her. But she wouldn’t let go of me.

     And as unlikely as it was, we became close friends—friends who ate dinner together, sipped on Ying Lings while eating crème brṹlée, and argued books. We attended poetry readings, made butter lambs, sipped tea on cold afternoons, and road the decorated streets of Sumter at Christmas time looking for “blow-ups”(the term we used for those huge inflatable characters that decorate lawns around here during holidays.)

     We shared laughs and tears. But mostly, we shared our love for the written word. I never left our shared time without having heard a new story from her, or at least, without being inspired with an idea for one of my own. And she never said goodbye without ending with, “I LOVE you, Sandy.”

     I told her she was a Drama Queen.

     But it did not change her. Our last conversation on Monday ended with those same words: I LOVE you, Sandy.

     Ellen Arl did exactly what she said she’d do that first day I entered her class—she helped make me a writer. For that, but most of all for her generous love and friendship, I am forever grateful.

     I love you, too, Ellen.

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