The first time I heard of John Ruskin was April 17, 1987. I was nearing the end of a contract teaching English at a small, remote high school in north central Arkansas. It had been a difficult start to a professional career. I had moved from my university town into a tiny village hundreds of miles away. Mid-year my responsibility to teach 10th through 12th grade English and speech was reassigned when a local lad completed the requirements for certification and was hired to be my replacement for the following year. I suddenly found myself teaching 6th through 12th graders English, French, speech, creative writing, and psychology with a suspicion that my job would end in May.
Unemployment rates were well into double digits, and many of my peers were “between jobs.” My former psychology teacher suggested that I consider graduate study, which seemed an idea worthy of investigation. I took a weekend off and developed a plan. I made a list of thirteen questions I needed someone to answer in order for me to find my way forward. Some of the things I wanted to know were these:
- How would investing my time, money, and energy in a graduate program benefit me?
- What are the future career prospects in this field?
- How do I get from where I am now to where you are in your career?
- What qualities in my background make me an ideal candidate for study in your program?
- How long would it take me to gain my credentials?
The next Friday, I was ready. It was afternoon before I found my way to the psychology department at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas, and the weekend couldn’t arrive soon enough for the departmental secretary. I tried to introduce myself and explain about the questions in my hand, but she said since it was Good Friday afternoon, there was no one in the office to speak with me. She didn’t even have time to make an appointment and had no suggestions for my next step. Dismayed, I wandered out and looked for an exit to the building. I happened to pass by the dean’s office en route, and somehow I found the resolve to try again.
The secretary in this office was slightly more indulgent, and when the dean heard me speaking, he came out of his office to listen to my story. I started again, “I teach English at a small school in northern Arkansas,” I began. I told him about my experience with the psychology department, about my list of questions, and even about my teacher’s suggestion that I consider graduate study. He heard me out calmly, but I could tell anxiety was mounting. His response was, “Will you please come with me?”
He led the way back to the psychology office and spoke sternly to the secretary. “This lady is an English teacher who is interested in graduate study in our program. If there is no one here to talk with her, could you please AT LEAST take down her name and phone number so that I can follow up myself and make sure someone answers her questions?” He was very polite, but his question was far more imperative than interrogative.
“Wait here just a minute,” the secretary mumbled after he left. She came back and ushered me into an office where a faculty member was rushing to complete his week’s responsibilities and dash off to collect his daughter from school. He invited me to sit down as he explained. “I absolutely must leave in ten minutes,” he apologized. “Until then you have my full attention. How can I help you?”
I abbreviated my tale and started to read him my questions. He interrupted and stopped me after only the first few. He said, “Let me save us both some time here.” My qualifications prepared me for graduate study in his program, but a graduate degree in psychology was, apparently, a shortcut to a breadline. “There are no jobs in this field,” he admitted frankly.
“Can you point me to the English department?” I asked. I had to ask several people that question along the way because no one knew exactly where English was studied on this campus, but I eventually found the path to Irby. Irby was a long, low building of pale brick enfolding three sides of a small courtyard. The structure was the remaining evidence of a history as a teaching school. Kindergarteners once frolicked there, and undergraduates were taught to teach and supervise their learning. Later, I would meet a graduate student with living memories of climbing playground equipment there when he was a five-year-old child.
I met three people on the way into Irby, and each of them seemed content to be working in her office on a Good Friday afternoon, grading papers and preparing lessons. Each one listened patiently and attentively to my (by now rather polished) tale, and each one had the same reply. They all told me I’d want to speak with the chairman of the department, Dr Phillip B. Anderson. After the ordeal I’d undergone in the psychology department, I was uncertain and rather hoping to get answers from an employee further down the food chain. Even though each faculty member invited me to step in, heard me out, and offered a personal response, each one was adamant that Phillip would want to meet and to talk with me.
Dr Virginia Levey was my penultimate stop, and she invited me to sit and visit a bit before she took me in to make an introduction to Phillip. When she had listened to all the questions and offered brief responses with all the information she felt would be helpful, she rose with great dignity and said, “Let’s go next door now.” She escorted me into the main departmental office, and I got to see a professor’s interaction with Barbara Stanley, the departmental secretary. It was as professional and friendly as the psychology department’s had been tense and dictatorial. Barbara too seemed happy to be at work, relaxed and communicative in her greeting and conversation. In the end, I was left standing in the background as Virginia explained my presence.
I heard Phillip slip out the back door of his office while they were speaking. He knew he could trust Barbara to oversee the arrangements for any meetings. This meant I ended up waiting alone with Barbara for his return. Curiously, I did not feel at all awkward there, though Barbara went back to her work and left me standing. It occurred to me very plainly that I was in the midst of a department which functioned comfortably, which supported the goals of each member, and which I would be very happy to become a part of.
Phillip was soon back, and Barbara announced simply that I wanted a chat with him. He stepped to the doorway of his inner sanctum and said simply, “Come in.” I began my tale, suddenly stammering through my own name and details and was met with a wry smile. You see, he’d already invited me. Phillip listened, though, and when I took a breath, he said again, very patiently, “Come in. Come in.” He sat me down and gave me time to collect myself. We talked for over two hours that day. He listened carefully to each of my questions, and he answered thoughtfully and frankly with the patient attention of a good teacher, until we were both sure I understood completely. It was the final question on my list, “Where do I begin?” which led me directly to Ruskin.
Phillip told me of a course he would be teaching in the first summer term, Nineteenth Century Nonfiction Prose, in which I could study Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas DeQuincey, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John Ruskin. I had heard of some of these writers, knew Arnold as a poet, and was vaguely familiar with one or two of the others, but I admitted that I had never heard the name John Ruskin.
Phillip claimed to be only mildly surprised at this gap in my education, and he began to tell me who Ruskin was and how much I would enjoy studying his writing. He was right, of course. I soon resigned my position as a high school teacher with newfound confidence, moved to Conway, and began my graduate studies with an earnest desire to prove myself worthy of being part of a world where academics and their staff loved their work and enjoyed one another’s conversation and company.
By the time Phillip and I got to our study of John Ruskin in that first class some weeks later, I was ready to learn. I soaked in deeply the instruction of “Of Kings’ Treasuries” and Unto This Last (complete text). I have never read nor lived the same way since then. It must have been an abundance of mercy that prompted Phillip to reward my studies that semester with an A, but my fascination with Ruskin was obvious and growing. As I was nearing the completion of my degree two years later, Phillip proposed developing a seminar just for me, a course devoted solely to the study of John Ruskin.
I wasn’t the only student who enrolled in that course, but it often felt as though I were. Phillip and I read and discussed Ruskin’s major works together, and the trajectory of my future was launched in a positive direction. For this guidance I am eternally grateful. It was my meeting with Dr Phillip Bruce Anderson that led me to Ruskin and offered me the richest lessons I have to teach my own students even now. I never let a Good Friday pass without my saying, “This is the day I met Phillip Anderson and thus came to know John Ruskin.” Even decades later, it still seems a supernatural gift.
Last modified 5 December 2019