She was one of those professors you do not forget. Back in the 1970s, I first met Sr. Teresita Fay, R.S.H.M. in an English Composition class at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. We met in a hot classroom in Pereira Hall, the engineering building. I was a very average writer and she worked me hard. She pushed me to find better words, especially more living verbs. She urged me toward smooth and elegant sentences, and something that might one day be my own voice. I worked hard in her class and my writing improved. When I met her in a class again two years later, I was more hopeful and more prepared. This class, an upper division literature class, met in Foley Hall, which then served as the home of the English Department. We circled our chairs and read Modern American Poetry. I wanted her to know I was not the average freshman she taught years earlier. Her passion for poetry drew me in. She encouraged us to dive in and to love the poems we read. It worked. I found myself amazed by the craft and pulse within the poems.
Our final exam would be an oral exam in her office. The thought terrified me but I was committed to proving myself to her. She told us to know the poems. I studied like mad and went to her office in Foley Hall at the appointed time. She settled herself behind her desk. She had long brown hair at the time, an elegant woman, quiet but certain. She asked me a few questions and I felt I was sailing along decently. I remember her going silent for a moment, then asking me a question that would become an earthquake in my life. She looked directly at me and asked: “How have these poems helped you live better?”
I have no idea how I answered her question that day. I think I stumbled through an answer somehow. But ever since that examination in her office, her question has formed the foundation for my own understanding of literature’s role in the world. It has affected every class I’ve taught in more than twenty-five years of teaching at the college and high school levels. We must see and nurture the connection between literature and life. This connection forms the basis for the imagination, which is the only way the world can change. If literature comes from human experience, then it must inform our current experience so the world becomes more gentle, more humane. I find myself asking students ever since, some version of her question. How might Emily Dickinson’s poems affect your life? How might the poetry of Langston Hughes affect your thinking about race? How does your reading of Walt Whitman influence your citizenship? On that day back in her book-lined office in Foley Hall, her question hit me like a flash of light. I’ve tried to answer it slowly, in my own writing and teaching, ever since.
Back in 2012, when my first book of poetry, Meeting Bone Man, was published, I reached out to her and found her in New York. We shared some emails and I sent her a copy of the book. She was as kind and gracious as ever, though she taught me more than thirty years ago. Just this morning, I received an email telling me that she died last week, on October 24, 2014. She recently served as a member of the Board of Trustees at Marymount Manhattan College. I am grateful for her life, her passion for poetry, and mostly for her insistence that good literature comes from the human experience– and informs it– at the same time. Perhaps the best tribute to her will be for me to keep asking her question: How does what we read (and write) help us live better?
Top Photo Credit: Marymount Manhattan College
Center Photo Credit: J. Ross