Just a Smell

It is just a smell.

Something in the air as I walk across campus. It strikes with subtle but unmistakable force. It makes me stop, sniff.

It isn’t Chick-Fil-A or the lunch aroma from the college dining commons.

In fact, I can’t pinpoint or describe the smell; it is simply in the air. Closing my eyes, the smell has transported me. I am at Houghton College, walking the sidewalk that encompassed the quad, a new freshman, terrified, lonely, missing my family, worried about being a failure, that I can’t cut this whole college thing.

Now, as I stand on the sidewalk surrounded by the buildings of Taylor University where I teach, I am not here — I am traveling in time. I am not a publishing professional and faculty member. I am an eighteen year old with no fashion sense and big glasses and low self-esteem. A girl who doesn’t know what she wants to major in or why she’s at college or who will be her new friends or if she’ll have friends at all.

Standing here in these passing moments, I open my eyes and see a a lone student slouching toward me, eyes downcast, heavy backpack, sad face. My heart goes out to him. I know, in that moment exactly how the young man is feeling. Exactly. I am right there with him. Overwhelmed with distress from four decades ago.

I want to grab him, to hug him, to tell him it’s all going to be okay. He’ll figure it out as each day goes by. Tell him that God will be faithful. Tell him to just take it a day at a time, a step at a time.

But of course, I don’t. I can’t. The young man walks by. I sniff again and return to the present. But I vow that any moment I can, I will tell these dear students with their wide eyes and their fears and worries that it will indeed be okay.

I can testify to it.

It is just a smell. But how powerful the memories it evokes. It gives me a mission, for it reminds me that four decades ago I, too, was slouching along a sidewalk, overwhelmed, deeply distressed, trying to figure out life. God walked with me each step of the way.

All it took was a smell.

Thank You, Dr. Leax, for Your Inspiration

It’s 1976. I have just been dropped off by my parents to this place in the middle of nowhere. Houghton College, Houghton, New York. The town doesn’t even have a stoplight. Go too fast on Route 19 and you will go right on by without realizing there’s a really wonderful college just up that two-lane paved road part-way up the hill. In the years since I was there, the college astutely placed a large brick entrance sign and widened that road so that it’s a little more difficult to slide on by. However, there is still no stoplight.


I’m trying America back on again after spending my four high school years in Europe. We didn’t have American television so all these guys are going “Ehhhhhhh!” flashing a thumbs up and the explanation I get is that they’re imitating Fonzie.

“What’s a fonzie?”

Clearly, I am way behind the times.

My first writing instructor in college is a man named Dr. John Leax (pronounced “Lex.” He was fond of telling everyone not to make him more exotic with some sort of pronunciation like the French word for water, l’eau. It was just “Lex”). After we get that he’s pronounced “Lex,” I learn that although he’s John, his colleagues call him Jack. Sort of that “John Kennedy–Jack Kennedy” thing going on that I never understood. How does “John” become “Jack”? Well, it really didn’t matter anyway since I would never have called him by his first name.

It’s the required 101 basic writing class with whatever department call letters are used at the time. I am terrified. I’m in a new place in, basically, a new country; all of my high school friends are scattered (literally) all over the world; I’m hoping I can hack this whole college thing; I’m eight hours away from my parents and sister. 

Here’s what I remember about Dr. Leax’s class:

Our papers are turned in and then mimeographed (I don’t think we yet had photocopiers in the world) onto clear plastic sheets. Our names are blacked out, and each paper is placed on the overhead projector so that all of its electric-typewriter-typed glory appears on the screen so we can read through it as a class. Not everyone gets this treatment. I think he picks out the especially good or especially bad papers.

One day my paper is being projected onto the screen, and I sit as nonchalantly as possible to make sure no one can possibly think it’s mine. Dr. Leax is underlining sections, discussing them. At one point, he draws a line through a paragraph and sketches a little trash can in the margin. It looks something like this–much more simple and crude, of course.

Photo from “How to draw funny cartoons

That’s what he did for everyone when something just was . . . well . . . trash. Trash cans in the margins. Sometimes, if the writing was especially bad, he’d do this:

Photo from “How to draw funny cartoons

The squiggly lines above the trash can signifying the especially pungent odor of said writing . . . er . . . bad writing. I don’t recall ever getting the squiggles on my papers, although I know I got more than one trash can.*

Later in my career, I discovered proofreading marks, and there are no trash cans.

But there should be.

Since I eventually declare a double major in English and Writing, I will have the privilege of studying under Dr. Leax for other classes. He’s a poet and an inspiration. From Dr. Leax, I learn about the value of good writing and how to spot poor writing. And he teaches me how to make bad writing better. He teaches me the value of words and of finding just the right word.

Thank you, Dr. Leax. You gave me the tools I still use today.

Who’s your inspiration? Is there a person in your past who helped inspire you to be the person you are today?

 * Update on 12/21/19. I just finished reading John Leax’s book, In Season and Out (Zondervan, 1985). There, he writes, “When I started teaching, I was all for kicking. My students may have been bruised, but I was sure they were tough. After about five years in the classroom, I began to have my doubts. Perhaps they were merely bruised. I stopped drawing garbage cans beside their bad sentences and started making ambiguous little arrows that mean ‘something is not quite right here, but I think you might have the idea.’ Lately I’ve been tempted to write, ‘Come on. Please don’t break my heart by writing so badly I can’t ignore your errors. Don’t you realize how much I want to pass you?’ I’m growing soft and wishy-washy” (99).

5 Notes to My Younger College Self

Well, another semester nearly done (being back in graduate school and doing adjunct teaching has suddenly put my life in the “semester” track again). One more semester to go in graduate school and the MA will be mine! One more final and I’ll send another batch of students out the door and on their way.

I realized last night that some of my new Ball State grad school friends are graduating and moving on. I said good-bye to one who’s heading to her doctoral program in another state in September. I was just getting to know her! And several of my Taylor students are graduating. This will be the tough part of teaching. Getting to know students, investing in their lives, and then letting them go. (It’s too much like being a parent!)

credit: istockphoto
credit: istockphoto

I’ve been thinking a lot about the dichotomy of being–at the same time–an old(er) graduate student and a professor of students who are my children’s ages. So here, for what it’s worth, is my advice to my younger self about how I would have done school differently if I knew then what I know now (and next week, advice to others, old like me, who are thinking about heading back to school).

(1) Take advantage of every opportunity you have to spend time with your professors.

I’ll say it. I was terrified of professors. They were “up there,” I was “down here.” They held my future (or at least my GPA) in their hands. I stayed as far away as I could.

Now that I’ve been a professor, I realize they’re just folks. Of course a lot more knowledgeable about said topic–which is why they are teaching–but many of them chose this profession because they really like students. My son told me he was able to talk more easily with his professors once I began teaching because he realized they are just people who have kids and take out the trash and mow their lawns and even cry sometimes.

Ask a professor to lunch or coffee. Take advantage of office hours to have a chat at some point in the semester. They really love that. They have a lot of life experience that they can impart. Draw from what they’ve learned.

(2) Don’t let fear about the future overwhelm you.

I’ll admit it . . . I wanted to be married. I wanted to have my dream job. And I wanted it all right then (or anytime during the month of May 1980 would have been fine). That moment when you arrive home after those four college years can be the most depressing of your life. “Now what?” Suddenly the comfort of knowing what’s happening in September is gone and the future is an empty road. As a Christian, I can encourage you that the plan is in place and all you need to do is take a step at a time. The road will turn and maybe lead you in unexpected places. Follow it. Of course be wise and strategic, but be open to surprises. God’s plans are way better than our own anyway. And don’t be afraid of being unmarried when you graduate. The right person will come along at the right time. Trust me.

(3) Follow your passions.

I ended up in publishing because I did what I loved. At college, when that moment of declaring a major arrived in the fall of my sophomore year, I panicked. I literally got out the college catalog, sat on my groovy bedspread, and figured I’d find out what Houghton offered. As I read through the majors (Accounting? gag. Biology? puh-leeese. Chemistry? not on your life), something jumped inside me when I hit it: English. “I can read my way to a major? Sign me up.” I followed what I was hardwired to do–love words. I signed up to double major in Writing (once I got to W in the catalog) and never looked back.

My path wandered various directions, but I believe God wastes no experience in our lives. And sometimes it was a few surprises from him that put me in the right place at the right time. I’m passionate about what I do. I absolutely love it. If you follow those God-given gifts, you’ll feel the same. As noted in #2, don’t worry about the detours. If you have to have a job at Starbucks or Babies-R-Us for the time being (I’m looking at two of my beloved kiddos), enjoy it, learn from it, do your very best at it. Keep your passion alive by working at what you love on the side.

(4) Stay in contact with your grandparents (or other significant family members).

And I don’t say this as a new grandparent. You’re busy, you’ve got so much going on, you’re doing your darndest to separate yourself from your parents and get on with your life. I get it. That’s all good and necessary. But please in all of the drama of your friendships and love life and future plans, don’t forget your grandparents. Stay in touch. Call grandma up once in awhile. Give grandpa an update. Those people are gone too soon from your life. Just as I noted in #1 that professors have so much to offer, grandparents have more. They are your blood, your family legacy. Don’t regret never getting to know them. For better or worse, learn about where you come from. Mine their memories. Learn from their experiences. You’ll be fascinated.

(5) Learn about budgeting, saving, and spending wisely.

You wanna be on your own? Living costs money. The better organized you are at keeping track of money and budgeting your expenses, the less stress you’ll have when you sign that lease for the apartment and pay for the cell phone and cover the electric bill and make the car payment and sign up for car insurance and get an internet connection and decide if you can afford to order HBO so you can watch “Game of Thrones.” Some of you may already be way down the road on this, but I beg you to be wise. Put the credit card in a bowl of water and put it in your freezer so you can’t get to it without a waiting period. Don’t run up debt. Live frugally. The time will come when you’ll have more, but don’t expect it right away. You’ll thank me later, just as I thank my parents for their good training.

So, Linda, here’s my advice to my younger self. Some things you did well, some things you could have done better (isn’t that always the way?). But maybe someone can learn from you . . .