Twin Beeches -- an Illinois Love Story
Author: paul schoaff

Chapter 17
Culture Shock


(all MJ)

Culture Shock

I make a Lifelong Friend, even if she Doesn’t Realize it Yet


Another woman, Mrs. Z., who administered the student union where I took a part time job, filled me in on Miss Feather's daughter, how she had gotten involved in the “Student Underground” in the early 70's, and how she got arrested for helping blow up an empty ROTC office while in graduate school in Massachusetts.  She spent most of 10 years in prison and now, Mrs. Z thought, lived in a commune in northern California, or was married to an accountant in Florida, or raising organic vegetables in Maine, or....


“Do you know why Miss Feather wouldn't tell you this herself?"    When I shook my head, she continued, very quietly, “She told me once she just couldn't believe how many students today think of her daughter as a role model.”


I had attended classes for two weeks before my appointment with my academic adviser came to pass.  Miss Feather must have matched me with my advisor, a 30-ish female Associate Professor of English Literature from the South Side of Chicago and the University of Chicago Graduate School.


“What do you like for people to call you?” was her first question.  I was surprised, for all my professors, up to this, just called me 'Miss Gonsalves', if they called me anything at all. And, her vernacular wasn't what I expected of an English Literature teacher.


“’M.J.’, Ma'am”, I replied.   “Of course, feel free to call me whatever you please.”


“How about ‘pregnant’”, she joked. “Oh, don't look so surprised, you're not showing much, yet, and you did give me the straight line --   Miss Feather let me in on your little secret.”


“I am not trying to keep it a secret!” I objected, “It's just...It isn't anyone's business but mine!”


“Easy girlfriend”, she laughed.  “You're among friends!  I’m really here to help you.  Stuff happens.  I know. Then you need to make plans and ‘to-do’ lists and figure out how to get everything done. You being PG was something I needed to know, to do my job as your advisor.”


“I'm sorry I got upset," I went on.  Inwardly, I felt very uncomfortable with anyone being so presumptuous.   In her sassy, South Side of Chicago manner, I think now she tried then just to relate to me on a basic level.  To me, though, then, it was an awful shock to my rural Midwestern sensibilities. I'm very used to her today.   For a few minutes, we talked about how I'd someday like to be a writer, or a newspaper reporter, or both.


Finally, she said, “Being pregnant is no big deal to me.  The fact is,” she continued, almost in a whisper, “I have had four children myself – the first I put up for adoption -- the 2nd and 3rd were surrogate children I carried to make money for graduate school.  Number four is all mine, and my husband's, and she is in my Moses basket right over in the corner!”


“That's...that's...”  Too shocking to be believed and why is this Crazy Professor telling me things like this? FTMI! FTMI!


Associate Professor Whitley broke out with a peal of laughter; “Got you!” she exulted.  “M.J., I consider myself an excellent story-teller.  I might be wrong, but, after all, literature is all about telling stories, isn't it?  I set out to 'blow your mind', and I did!  I'm hoping, after reading your file, you will consider taking a major in English and learn to write as well as your High School Teachers already think you can.  Oh, and Mr. Bader from the newspaper, too.  You have a way to go, you know.”


“But, there is a basket over there, and I do hear a baby fussing!”


“The only true thing said.  I think good fiction always has a basis in reality, in what you know and what you have observed.  Writing fiction is merely the process of extrapolating, maybe even expanding and exaggerating, from your base of knowledge.  It expands your mind at the same time as you entertain your audience.  And, I do believe, personally, being a good 'oral' storyteller is important to developing your written talent.  Show me a woman who can tell a good joke, and I’ll show you one who can write a good story.  I spent two summers as a storyteller in Grant Park, you know, where I met my husband!"


She slipped out of her chair, walked around me to the door, which she shut and locked.  In a moment, she had the little girl resting comfortably in her arms and nursed her, modestly, under a clean diaper.  “We don't want to cause a scandal for the old farts in the department to get flustered about, do we?”  I nodded and smiled, yet wondering if I really wanted to get to know this Wacko Professor!


“Now,” she asked, suddenly all business, “When are you due?”


“Valentine's Day would be nine months. I'm sure of the conception date.”


She looked over her baby to her desk calendar.  “Prom night?  Just the once, huh?”


“You guessed it.”


“You should a, could a been careful.” she began, and then quickly added, “None of my … I said too much ....  Well, your choice of due date makes things quite a bit easier for us.  Lombard is on a trimester system, and we are scheduled off the week after 2nd trimester finals week.   You can take the 3rd trimester off and return for the fall trimester as an “almost sophomore”.  You should be able to catch up by the end of your second year.”


She said exactly what I was hoping to hear.  “I wonder if you could give me an independent study for the 3rd trimester?” I hinted.  “Then I wouldn't have so much to make up when I came back.”


“Maybe.  Probably not.  You see, M.J., your class load this term and next is going to be mostly core classes, 100 level in all different areas.  I don't know if we will be able to recognize your talent in any particular area by 3rd term, enough to let you go off on your own.   Besides”, she joked, “after your own 3rd trimester, you will have your hands full and might not need anything more on your plate.”


“I know my mother will help a lot”, I retorted, “and I don't have a husband   to get in the way; I don't see why I can't do it.”


Associate Professor Whitley laughed freely, “We'll just have to see how it goes.  Just remember you’re not the first and won’t be the last to arrive at Lombard like this. You should have seen my high school graduation.  They had to rent a whole bunch of extra wide chairs!”


Whitley’s office, like those for most new faculty, was very small.  The baby and her necessities took up a significant fraction of the space not absolutely needed for Ms. Whitley’s files and desk and chair and computer.  One inside wall with no windows and radiators was covered from floor to ceiling with bookshelves, most of which were already occupied.  There was only one visitor chair, and it had to be moved slightly to allow the door to close or open.  When she was done nursing, I noticed how stuffy the room had become and I asked to be excused to go back to my ‘homework’.






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