This is one in a series of weekly posts from Accidental Mentors subscribers about one of their accidental mentors. Today's guest writer is Kassie Rubico.
Kassie Rubico’s work has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guide to Kulcher Creative Journal, Insight Academic Journal, Parnassus Literary Journal, the anthology, River Muse, Tales of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley, and Toska Literary Magazine. She received a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Literature at Rivier College and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Pine Manor College. She has taught writing and literature at various colleges and is currently teaching in the Changing Lives Through Literature program. Kassie lives in Cambridge, MA.
I didn’t know The Woman of Willendorf from The Creation of Adam the first time I stumbled into Coburn Hall. It was a warm day in early September. I do know that the brass door handle at the top of the landing got stuck, and that I had to push hard against the recessed panels for it to open. Balancing my new leather book bag on my right shoulder, I was desperate not to draw attention. Inside, the lobby was shady—dark wood, dim sounds, and the mysterious scent of something starting. I checked my schedule one more time to be sure—classroom 432—then headed for the staircase. My heart was beating in time with clicking heels of confident girls, who flirted with boys wearing pants well below their waist. Nylon backpacks bumped up against my bare arms. Maybe I should have worn a sweater. No, it was much too warm. Was I having a hot flash? I pulled at the front of my shirt, still trying to prevent the difficult book bag from sliding off my shoulder. Finally, the fourth floor. A gold nameplate on the side of the door was a welcome relief: Art History, 432.
I had made the decision to go back to school around the same time that I registered my youngest for kindergarten. I announced my plans one night during dinner. My three daughters peered at me across the table.
“Aren’t you a little old?”
Not having a college degree had felt like a missing tooth, something I could have lived without it, but I’d always be aware of the hole. Later that night, I tried to explain my role as a full-time student. “While you’re in school, Mommy will be in school.” It sounded easy enough, but even I worried about there being enough time for classes, homework, and homemaking. Would I create new holes?
In room 432, a stout woman with thick blond hair and a deep Italian accent introduced herself. “My name is Liana Cheney,” she announced, marching up from the back of the room, arms swinging in perfect form. “I am a professor of Art History, and this class will teach you how to think critically about art and life.” I had no idea what that meant. So far, my limited college experience had been a few years of night classes in accounting, over twenty years ago. Back then, questions had only one answer, and mine were usually wrong, which was why I decided to switch majors this time around. In order for my accounting credits to transfer, I had to enroll in the Department of Liberal Arts, of which Dr. Cheney was the Chair. Her Art History class was mandatory.
Professor Cheney went on to explain the logistics of the class and her rules for classroom decorum. “I will not tolerate cheating,” she said, pumping a tight fist on the last word. “If you cheat in my class, you will cheat for the rest of your life.” I thought of the time in fourth grade when my teacher, Mrs. Burns, asked me if a girl in my class had copied my answers. It was probably the last time my answers were worthy of being copied. Professor Cheney continued her class introduction with as much severity as General Patton: “If your cell phone rings in my class, get up, go to the registrar’s office and drop my class.” I didn’t know whether to hide under my desk or salute her. My friends and I didn’t talk like that in our mothers’ group. There, we used indoor voices, mostly to validate our importance as stay-at-home moms.
Art History was on Tuesdays and Thursdays for an hour and fifteen minutes. The lectures went like this. Dr. Cheney would stand in the back of the class, peering over a slide projector, each click demonstrating another work of art from a particular historical period. Dr. Cheney was eloquent. From memory, she’d walk us through the world of ancient art, which I soon learned was art before the written word. She’d describe the religious symbolism of Stonehenge, a famous “cromlech” in southern England, built of posts and lintel (horizontal slabs). “The text will tell you that Stonehenge was built in 2000 B.C., but this is false,” Dr. Cheney would argue. “It dates back to 7000 B.C.” I had no reason not to trust her contradiction and quickly became awestruck by her knowledge and confidence to challenge the facts of others.
Later that semester we moved on to the Middle Ages, Europe after the fall of Rome. We discussed Gothic Art, and the great cathedrals. My collection of index cards was as thick as the Book of Kells. Over and over again, I’d examine those cards, harnessing Dali’s persistence of memory, hearing Dr. Cheney’s voice, accenting names like Caravaggio, Donatello, Raphael. Dr. Cheney was opening doors to a whole new world for me, a world beyond scheduled playdates, carpools and conversations inspired by diaper rash. After class, I’d head for the O’Leary library, where I’d spend hours printing out pictures of prehistoric fertility goddesses, fresco paintings and renowned Italian sculptures. I was mesmerized by the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, Hatshepsut, Foremost of Noble Ladies, and the limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti. Who were these women with enough strength and intelligence to transform a society?
One day, the week before our Art History midterm, Dr. Cheney came over to me at the beginning of class. “I’d like to speak to you after class,” she said. Immediately, I put my hands under my desk, over my pants pockets. Had my cell phone gone off without my knowing it? My pockets were empty. I had gotten into the habit of leaving my phone in the car on Tuesdays and Thursdays, just in case. A risky move for a neurotic Mom. I spent the rest of the class wondering what I had done or worse, what I hadn’t done that deserved a talking-to from Dr. Cheney.
She was still standing behind the podium when I approached her after class.
“You wanted to see me?” I asked.
“Yes,” she smiled.
From my seat in the front row, I hadn’t noticed the sparkle in Dr. Cheney’s eyes.
“You take good notes, Katzie,” she continued.
There were at least forty students in the class. I had yet to hear her call anyone by name.
“I was wondering if you could share them with a student who has been out sick, so he can take the midterm.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Great,” she replied, walking toward the exit sign. And that was it. She was gone.
Later that semester, I discovered that Liana Cheney was my Advisor. In her small office, also on the fourth floor of Coburn Hall, I got to see Dr. Cheney’s softer side. I’d meet with her at the end of each semester to go over my schedule for the following term. During one of our meetings, she explained that I needed to take a language in order to meet the graduation requirements. “Have you studied a language before?” she asked.
Embarrassed to admit that I had not studied any language since Francisco Franco had reigned over Spain, I hesitated, “Yeah, but a long time ago.”
“No problem,” she said, picking up the telephone receiver. “Bonjour, Professor Garneau.” Dr. Cheney was fluent in seven languages. “I have a capable student here who needs to take the placement exam for Spanish I and possibly Spanish II.” She put her hand over the receiver. “If you pass both, you’ll receive six credits, without having to take the classes.
That night, after the girls were in bed, I began reading though the Spanish dictionary that I had purchased on my way home from school that day in preparation for the placement exam. I thought about Dr. Cheney’s conversation with Professor Gareau. Capaz is the Spanish word for capable.
My final meeting with Dr. Cheney was during the winter before my last semester as an undergraduate. She figured out which classes I still needed in order to complete my degree. Then said something that shocked me. “And when you go on for your master’s degree…”
“What?” I asked, as if she had fallen into one of her six fluent languages, one that I could not comprehend.
Maybe she didn’t realize how old I was, or that I had three daughters at home who needed me. Maybe she didn’t realize that getting a college degree was my goal, and how once it was achieved, I had planned on going back to being Mom full time.
“So you can teach,” Dr. Cheney continued.
She had misread me. I hadn’t shown any interest in teaching. When I would volunteer in my daughters’ classes, it took all of my patience not to glue half the students to their seats. Maybe I had given Dr. Cheney too much credit.
“I’m not interested in teaching kids,” I finally said.
Her eyes sparkled, just as they did when she’d discover an error in the textbook, “I’m not talking about kids.”
Two years later, I sent Dr. Cheney an email, just after receiving my first master’s degree. “Thank you for noticing something in me that I had yet to see in myself,” I wrote. She wrote back, congratulating me on my wonderful accomplishment and asked me to send a picture so that she could put my name to a face. I never did. It wasn’t important that Dr. Cheney know what I looked like. I wasn’t looking for her praise or validation this time. I only wanted her to know that she had made a difference in a student’s life.
Annette's Wanderings is a reader-supported publication, which includes Accidental Mentors. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Share YOUR Accidental Mentor stories
Thank you to Amy and to those others who have already submitted your Accidental Mentor stories about one of the women in your life who has inspired you, helped you, guided you, or positively impacted who you are today. I’m still hoping to receive more stories from you. If you haven’t submitted yours yet, please get it to me as soon as possible. Here’s more information: