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January 7, 2012: Teachers Keep Teaching

Last night Pete and I attended the annual Palmer Art Association gathering. I balked. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to have to get dressed up, and I didn’t want to have to engage in small talk. The latter is what I most dislike about such things. I have a hard time deftly moving from conversation to conversation. An analogy to running comes to mind. I’m a long distance talker. I start slowly, gather up speed, maintain it for a ways, then taper down.

Pete said it would be a good idea to go. He’s right about most things, so I agreed to accompany him, thinking that I’d treat this like it was our first date.


Coincidently, we went to a music festival on our first date—that was also an art-related event.

The keynote speaker was Peggy Shumaker, who was a teacher of mine when I was in the MFA program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks in the late 1980s. After our paths crossed just once, in 2007 Peggy was then a speaker at the Katchemak Bay Writer’s Conference.

Peggy’s currently the Alaska State Writer Laureate. I have to say that I was impressed with her presentation. She spoke about the importance of the arts in our lives, and emphasized this by using the more recent work of Alaska writers as an example. The focus wasn’t on her own work; rather, it was on the carefully crafted work of others. In conclusion, she read a poem she’d written. This got me to thinking –Peggy was doing as poet laureates should do—acting as a messenger, passing arts-related information on to the rest of us.

That it was dark, snowy, the lights in Rusty’s Restaurant dim, gave me the sense that I was in a mead hall of old, gathered together with like spirits, that is others who draw sustenance from well-told stories.

After, I deliberated some about going over and saying hello to Peggy. She was surrounded by people, and I suspected she wouldn’t be up for yet another conversation, that is one that might take us traipsing down memory lane. I then recalled what Frank Soos (who was another good teacher of mine) once told us students, which was that it’s quite acceptable (at social gatherings) to converse with those who’ve been called upon to read, present information, or do workshops. “That’s what they’re there for, to talk to you!” he said.

Frank’s former words were like a hand pushing me gently forward. I arose from my corner seat, and slowly walked up to Peggy’s table. She was talking with others so I quickly backed off. Pete, who was standing close by, followed me, saying that Peggy said “where did Alys go?”

So I went back up to the table, and waited for Peggy to finish talking with others. After, she turned to me, and spoke, asking how I was doing. A certain warmth emanated from her—as well as a genuine interest in what I had to say. I recalled that she’d always been this way—but back when I was a student, I was distrustful of it. My ego was then very large—I truly believed that I was the center of the universe.

Life, maturity, having been taken down a few notches by the world of academe—I think has been good for me. I now see kindness, a willingness to listen, as virtues that few possess. And as such, I value this highly. Indeed, Peggy and I had an amazing conversation, with her asking me questions about my work. (I now wish I’d asked her more questions about her work). She was, I noted, really interested in what I had to say. I mean, really interested. I at times fumbled for words because I wanted to get it all just right.

I did ask, and Peggy did say that she’d take a look at my book proposal. This wasn’t a half-hearted response. Nor did she, as a few have said, say that she was busy now, but maybe that she’d be able to fit this in a few months. Rather, she expressed considerable interest in what I was doing. I was blown away by her graciousness.

Whether or not Peggy does look at my proposal is now a moot point. It really doesn’t matter to me. What matters is this. In her willingness to listen, she affirmed that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing—writing. In this respect, she was a role model. I too should give others my undivided attention, by asking questions, and listening to them. And at the same time, do this with genuine warmth and compassion. This is a tough call, but one to strive for.

Had, in 1988, I been able to see into the future, and say, had a video of this particular event, I would have been blown away. It really interests me that a former teacher of mine appeared out of the blue and provided me with yet another important life lesson. All things in their time. Indeed.

Next: 34. 12/9/12: The Importance of Libraries