Between the Lines / Old Will Vance
Published 11:52 am, Tuesday, October 5, 2010
During my first year at the University of Hartford the only place I felt truly comfortable in was the classroom. It didn't take me long to realize how well my Catholic education had prepared me for this new experience. I was in class with other kids from all walks of life and wasn't intimidated by the competition or the course work.
As usual, I enjoyed meeting the various professors. Teachers always fascinated me, even if they were boring. I liked to observe personalities and the different ways they went about their job. It was also dawning on me that any talent I had might lie somewhere between history and language. History seemed archaic and somewhat remote to me, so I began to lean more and more toward English.
On the first day of English class we nervously waited in a small room in one of the academic buildings. Everything had been freshly cleaned and was spare and functional: desks, chairs and blackboard. The brown tile floor was waxed and shiny. Unlike my previous classrooms, there was no crucifix on the wall or statue of the Virgin Mary on a shelf. The hour struck and no still no sign of a professor. Then the door opened and a bald-headed man walked in with a wooden cane in one hand and an old-fashioned leather briefcase in the other. He walked decorously around the metal desk, leaned his cane behind him and set his valise down in the center of the desk. He carefully pulled out the chair and took a seat. When he was settled, he introduced himself as Will Vance Jr., and told us he was going to teach us how to write.
I was sitting in the front row. It was an old student habit of mine to meet the action up close, except for math class where I tried my best to hide in back. I would guess Vance was in his 70s then. He was a well-educated but plain-spoken man with a bit of raspiness in his voice. He wore round tortoise shell glasses and when he lectured he focused somewhere above our heads. He had some distaste for freshman composition; not because he disliked teaching writing, but because he rarely met any freshmen who were any good at it. He occasionally railed against bad grammar and redundancy, but he was generally affable in the classroom.
Dr. Vance prepped us for our first assignment -- a short story. This appealed to me since I had recently discovered literature and was finding an affinity there. I wrote a story called "The Hill." It was about a washed-up boxer who goes into a bar for his last fight. I had never been in a bar and I didn't know anything about boxing. The boxer's name was Tim Hill. He gets drunk and challenges everyone to a fight until he is pummeled and falls to the floor at the end. I wrote it in longhand on lined loose leaf paper.
A few days later Dr. Vance pulled my story out of a stack of papers and read some of it to the class. He pointed out some misspellings and incorrect punctuation, but he praised the story for its description and character. When he returned the paper I saw he had written in a shaky hand, "You Catholic boys really get around to some interesting places. Well done!" I was thrilled but didn't have the nerve to tell him I had never gotten around to anything in my life yet.
It seemed to me that old Dr. Vance was growing tired of us toward the end of the semester. We were fallow fields for teaching, and he plowed on with little expectation of a good crop. He fiddled more with his pipe and drummed his fingers absently on the desk. He flew off the handle after one girl said she had never heard of Chekhov and didn't like dumb stories anyway. His face reddened when he lost his temper and his voice became sharp. It took him a while to calm down again.
He came to class one morning around Christmas and said he had something special for us. He reached into his valise and slowly drew out a book. He was going to read a short story by his father, who was a popular writer in the early 20th century. I was impressed at the way he handled the fragile, gilt-edged volume and carefully turned to the right page. He waited until the class was totally quiet and then cleared his throat and began to read.
He was very intense as he got into the characters. His voice took on a dramatic tone and turned the prose into poetry. I sensed how deeply he identified with his father and also how much he must have lived in his father's shadow. It was a very compelling story and it ended with a man shooting himself. I think it had something to do with honor but I can't remember now. When he read the last line about the suicide, the silence of the students was palpable. His reading was superb and the story had totally mesmerized the class. It was one of those beautifully alive moments that so rarely happens in a classroom. I sat there both stunned and inspired.
Will Vance Jr. gently closed the book and slid it back into his briefcase. It seemed like a moment in time had somehow escaped and now must return forever to the past. He took off his glasses, closed his eyes and rubbed his face.
"And that, my friends, is what good writing is all about."
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.