If someone were to look at my life, they would think it highly improbable that I would become an English professor. In grade school, I woefully dreaded English and spelling classes and then had no respect for literature during my rebellious high school years; furthermore, I had a seemingly debilitating speech impediment that forced me into a speech development program during my early elementary school years. One could look at my life and wonder how a speech-impeded ex-Marine could come to grips with the study of literature.
Events took place during my early years that led me to believe that I was a real ladies man. I always caught the interest of older women—especially at the ballpark.
“Oh, how cute. What’s your name?” a teenage girl would ask.
I would reply, “Cwis Hawwis.”
“What?” she would ask, admiring my coy grin.
“He said Cwis. Your name is Cwis? How cute. Isn’t he just sooo cute?” another girl would say.
I would butt-in, “No. My name is Cwis . . . Cwis!”
During these initial moments, the girls would usually become thoroughly amused and worked into some sort of giggle-ridden frenzy. Pinches and pats almost always came during this juncture, but I refused to give up.
“I’m CWIS. C, H, AW, I, S. CWIS!” I would yell.
The chortling women would eventually, usually, come to grips and figure my name after further interrogation. “Oh, your name is Chris,” one of the girls would say. “His name is Chris. How cute.” The excitement would wind down for only a moment.
Her friend would then ask, “What team do you play on?”
So the agony continued. I can still envision some of those incidents at the ballpark. I was inflicted with the childhood speech-impediment that has recently been referred to as Roger Rabbit Syndrome. I could not pronounce the R sound, and at best, my Rs sounded like perfect Ws.
Some unknown power mandated that I spend my first grade year doing what all five year-olds loathe: staying in school an extra hour for remedial training with a certified speech therapist. The agony of being forced to read texts that were laced with Rs played havoc on my self-worth.
Despite my struggles with English, I developed into a reader when I was about ten years old. I ran the usual C. S. Lewis and Tolkien gauntlet, along with reading those multiple-part fantasy-novel series’. I remember going to the bookstore with my brother, hoping that the latest novel in a series would be on the shelf. Looking back, I miss the enthusiasm and control it took to sequester myself and read a novel from cover to cover in one or two sittings.
For some odd reason, while I was in high school, the pendulum swung back and I came to dislike reading. I thought that Shakespeare, and literature in general, was mere crapola.
My sole high school literature class was Myth and Symbol, and I did some of my best creative work there. I didn’t want to read too much, so I conjured up a book to write a book report about. The fake book was about a vagrant who wandered the streets of Los Angeles. Hence, the title: The Streets of L.A. I was shocked to find out that I received a B on my report. My hard work had paid off.
As asinine as faking a book for a report was, it is not the least intelligent thing that I have done during my life. My worst decision was to join the Marines, as the military has the tendency to degrade one’s intellect through the manipulative use of politics and power struggles—just like any government work. My boot camp peers were hippies, rednecks, inner city kids, and gang-bangers who joined the Marines to escape their previous lives. After boot camp and Administration School, I was stationed at the Recruit Depot in San Diego and then at the Recruiting Headquarters in Kansas City. The Marines will enlist almost anyone, so I spent a lot of my free time in the Enlistment Waiver sections, laughing and getting sick to my stomach. Habitual gas, glue, paint, smack, crack, wack, coke, and stripper sniffers received waivers and were allowed to enlist—especially during Desert Storm. I needed a way out, and reading became my savior.
While I was in the Marines, I started reading again. I started reading Henry Rollins, the existentialist, self-proclaimed pop culture icon, former lead-singer of the punk rock band, Black Flag. My tastes developed, and I graduated to Truman Capote and then to Nietzsche, authors Rollins discussed. I wasn’t planning on staying in the Marines, so reading was the vehicle to salvation. I wanted to further develop my intellect and ended up moving back to South Dakota and enrolling in SDSU, albeit, with no intention of majoring in English.
I fulfilled the literature requirement for my AT degree by taking Introduction to Literature. I was one of Dr. Donovan’s first students at SDSU, and she sold me on the feasibility of literary study by posing the field as one full of intellectual stimulation and historical significance. I changed my major and graduated with a degree in English with an emphasis in European Studies and a minor in German.
I’m not quite sure what made me become an English major, nonetheless an English professor; no single formative event can be distinguished more than any other can. My struggles in grade school, coupled with my high school angst and military letdown proffered a unique life experience. Study in English gave me an education in literature, history and philosophy, along with a renewed outlook on life. My developmental woes were internal, and I merely needed to come to grips with myself before choosing the right path for my education.