I wouldn't have said that between 1994, when I arrived at Clark University to embark on my Master's degree in English, and 1997, when I left. I was happy to leave, because Stan was one of my professors as well as my thesis advisor, and when I left, the gray hairs I'd sprouted during those three years had Stan's name etched on them.
It was my own stupid fault that'd I'd gone and chosen this topic on which to write my Master's thesis: Jewish- and Chinese-American Immigration Short Fiction by First- and Second-Generation American Writers. That was not my title, it was Stan's--just to give you an idea of how unnervingly detailed he was. Stan was the only professor in our small department who could advise me, owing to his strong background in Jewish literature (it didn't hurt that he descended from Syrian Jews who emigrated to America, either).
To give you an idea of how much I feared this man ( I'm sure by others did, too), I couldn't call him by his first name until I'd passed my oral exams, which was exactly one week before I left campus. I called him "Professor" in person, even at his house while he fixed me lunch. He called me "Miss Hiller, " as in Ah, Miss Hiller. I see you're back to grace me with your presence. I always held my breath before knocking on his office door, because he was normally so engrossed in reading something so inconceivably academic that my mere, lowly grad-school-student presence was probably offensive.
What truly offended Stan about me, though, was my writing style. I was flowery, prosaic (not good for a thesis); Stan demanded clarity through lifeless, staccato sentences I couldn't stand to pen. When I'd offer him ten or so pages of newly-researched and written work, he'd
Stan and I first met when I took his mandatory course, Introduction to Graduate Studies. Each week, one of us newbies was responsible for presenting a short lecture to one another, and to Stan, in a round table of sorts, only to be ripped to shreds mere moments after the last word left our quivering lips. No pictures exist of our seminar, but believe it: if there were any, you'd see seven or so 20-somethings sweating through their shirts, sitting far enough away from each other to keep their private reek of fear to themselves. You knew you were in real trouble when Stan began his post-lecture comments with Okay--let me tell you everything that's wrong with what you just said. Intro to Grad Studies met every Friday morning for one semester. I felt absolutely sick to my stomach every Thursday night.
I "won" with Stan--during our three-year relationship--twice. TWICE. Once, I answered a Stan Question correctly in our Grad class, and my answer made him gleeful--it was the first time he'd ever smiled at me. And once, an impassioned argument we were having over semantics in a short story that hardly anyone's ever heard of resulted in his genuinely conceding that I--I--was right, and he hadn't considered my interpretation ever before. I was so happy about this that I actually went for a run that night, and was propelled mostly by the joy of knowing I wasn't a complete idiot. For the record? I am NOT a runner.
Though I'd been informed about Stan's passing away in February, I came across his obituary in my Alumni Magazine. I'd read the issue cover to cover and yet somehow had missed this column, only to find it today when I was ripping pages from the magazine with which to wrap and pack away some glasses. If you read it, you'll see a fitting tribute to a most erudite, world-reknown scholar.
|"A chocolate egg cream contains neither|
egg nor cream," he taught us.
On another visit to his home, this time alone with only the last chapter of my thesis to accompany me, Stan talked about a concoction that he and his wife, Betty, had been refining--and keeping in their freezer--for over a decade: what he called a Chinese Master Sauce. (Recipe below.) I think about it every time I make stir-fry. I find it ironic that the two recipes Stan ever gave me are Jewish and Chinese ones.
I think of Stan every time I write. EVERY TIME I WRITE. I can hear him lambasting me for using the passive voice when I could be more clear, style be damned. I can hear him asking me if I need to use so many words to say what I mean. I can hear him guffaw at my puns, and then hear him sigh as he crosses them out with a red, word-murdering pen.
I think of Stan every time I challenge myself to do something that feels beyond me. It was Stan who introduced me to Yeats's The Fascination of What's Difficult, and it was because of this poem that I
When, finally, the thesis was complete and time came for the oral exams, Stan told me he'd be on the examining panel which would soon pummel me with questions to test the depth and breadth of my literary knowledge. (Hello? It was terrifying. I studied for weeks.) During the entire exam--was it one hour or two?--Stan wore a smirk. Was it a grin? Was it smug or genuine contentment that our time together would be formally done, whether or not I passed?
And I passed. Many hands were shaken (Stan, the passive voice just feels right here). And when I asked Stan how he could smile while my makeup melted with sweat, he answered, to my glee: I was always on your side, Miss Hiller.