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Notes from the Back Row


When scanning the alumni notes section in this magazine, I can choose from two classes. I graduated the University of Vermont in 1994 but finished high school in 1988. I joke about the math, the six-year plan and all that. But it doesn’t really matter. I don’t recognize the bold-faced names leaping about the nostalgic print of either column. And they surely wouldn’t know me. During much of my UVM tenure, I tried to stay anonymous, unknowable.

I majored in Russian, a language I learned in the stairwells and courtyards of 1980s Moscow where my parents had been stationed as American journalists. I know, a gut major. Aimless, my plan was to get through this college thing and then shuffle onto the next, um, thing. I didn’t expect anyone to influence my life here. I had already been shaped, with a stamp underneath that read: Made Elsewhere.

I was a pale and sullen character, a back-row sloucher with a mouthful of cavities (19 to be exact; the symbolism lost on me at the time). You might remember seeing me: worn baseball hat turned backwards, duct tape binding the strap; longish hair, a cruddy prep-school varsity jacket; paint-spattered jeans with grime-shine on the thighs, carved-up leather hiking boots. Always a cigarette between the fingers, a burning exclamation point. Hold on, that could be any number of students.

Those first years at UVM were electric, crackling with distractions. Protest shanties took over the Waterman Green on Main Campus. Demanding greater diversity, students also occupied President George Davis’s office. The defining image: Davis climbing a ladder on the south side of Waterman to negotiate with the young rebels. Elsewhere, hockey stand-out John LeClair was about to turn pro, Playboy was scouting the student body, Phish was playing downtown bars, and Burlington’s mayor was a socialist named Bernie. From the rickety shantytown on the top of the hill, long streets — Main, College and Pearl — poured down like asphalt tributaries into the black sparkle of Lake Champlain. It was a great place to get lost.

My freshman year I’d been assigned to the Patterson dormitory on Redstone Campus. At the time Redstone was “the” campus and Patterson “the” party dorm. For a while, it was grand — in a sticky, broken-glass kind of way — until I realized I was failing an alarming number of quizzes and exams, more interested in solving the puzzles printed on the undersides of beer caps than equations on the blackboard. I received an unheard-of C-minus in Russian.

In the spring, I dropped down to part-time status so I could move off campus, mostly to be closer to a new girlfriend. I found an apartment with a lesbian activist above The Other Place bar on North Winooski Avenue. Despite just the three classes, I landed on academic probation. I took a year off. Even messier, stories for another time.

I returned to campus in sorry shape, depressed, and drinking like a Soviet machinist. Less sure of my footing than ever. I discovered the poetry of Anne Sexton and decided to minor in American Lit. I scribbled on library cubicles and in the margins of my notebooks — phrases, images, poem titles, bits of overheard conversation, reimagined song lyrics. Every few months, I’d puzzle the lines together, call them a poem, and submit it to The New Yorker.

I never considered transferring though, content in my disaffection. And my high Russian marks allowed me, for the most part, to coast undetected, a Cyrillic Silver Surfer of sorts. Besides, I had already changed plenty of schools, cultures, too. The thought of another campus tour and all those quiz-like application boxes made me queasy. I’d soldier on. Just two-and-a-half years to go, right? Or was it three and a quarter? Jeez, hand me a beer, will ya?

When I first shuffled into Toby Fulwiler’s Written Expression class in the basement of Lafayette I was pushing 21 years old. My fellow classmates were mostly bubbly 18-year-olds. I was decidedly un-bubbly. My classroom M.O. was more like this: furrowed look of concentration, pronounced taciturnity. Underneath though beat a panicked heart, fluttering like a trapped bird. Shy and awkward without abundant social lubricant, I had dropped many a course because of class-participation demands. Written Expression was a core requirement, however. I’d have only crossed fingers to get me through.

When Toby walked in, he didn’t speak. He wore faded jeans and hiking boots, rolled-up shirtsleeves and no tie. His hair and beard were slightly unkempt as if he’d come in from garden work. He plugged in the transparency machine and wrote out some instructions, starting with: “arrange your desks in a circle.” The back row disappeared, there went my safety valve. Minutes ticked by, still not a word. Just more written commands: describe this, explain that. While some of my classmates squirmed and tittered, I welcomed the silence, the notion of meaningful interaction without speech. It was a gorgeous 75 minutes.

You see, words had always been my nemesis. As a tender English-speaker thrown into austere Soviet culture, language had constantly tripped me up. By the time I was dreaming, and processing the world almost entirely in Russian, my family returned to the United States. A similar banana-peel effect infected my English. I couldn’t string the proper words together in time, synapses caught between Slavic and Anglo constructions, scaffolding everywhere.

A few classes later, Toby told us to reach into the pocket or bag of the student next to us and pull out their wallet or purse. Based on the contents, write a profile of that person, he said. The idea was that revelation was hidden in plain sight. Embedded in that assignment were the first heartbeats of any piece of writing: intimacy, trust, honesty, care, the significance of the every-day. My father, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, used Toby’s wallet exercise for years.

You could tell Toby adored language. He proudly posted our strong sentences, nice details, striking openings. He broke writing down, made it accessible. We didn’t dwell on grammar or sentence structure; the focus was expression, content, and form. Led by Toby’s humor and passion, the class took on a personality like an after-school club. Toby believed anyone capable of good writing; the only requirement was a bit of will.

In the rest of my life in Burlington, I still lurked in the back rows. With Toby though I was part of a well-lit circle, no distances among us. Toby drew me out like a sword. He showed us how to connect with others, that words on paper could transcend our varied experiences and social circles. In our hands, writing was a transformative, inclusive power. When we bumped into one another months, semesters, later, we often reminisced. I can still picture their faces. My other UVM classmates, even once-upon-a-time friends, have faded into the mist.

Toby was an ardent promoter of writing and published extensively on the craft. In one of his texts, The Blair Handbook, he reproduced samples from our class, including one of mine for which I had to sign a release. Heady stuff at the time.

Toby retired from UVM last year though he now consults faculty on teaching writing. He moved to a small town north of Burlington with plenty of acreage, where he can work with his hands, tend to the land, and launch his motorcycle onto the open road.

Not long ago, we met for lunch on Church Street. The quick wink, the easy smile, the beard were still there. He joked about his gray hair and my ball-cap wearing days. We had both put on a little weight. Two servers tended to us, a waitress and a younger, slightly nervous waiter-in-training — appropriate I thought. I gave Toby an envelope of recent clips (still no New Yorker byline). He handed me the fourth edition of The Blair Handbook.

“Your scene about waiting for someone at The Other Place is still in there, I think,” he smiled.

Over sandwiches and fries, we talked about the English Department, about today’s writing and the struggle to wring a paycheck from paragraphs and sentences. Soon, we were talking about that composition class more than ten years ago.

“I was you,” Toby said.

I leaned in.

Toby told me he came from a literate family and went to college mostly because it was expected. Shy and confused, he hid in the back row, hoping not to be noticed, feeling less knowledgable than his classmates. As a teacher, he was determined to demystify the academic experience.

“My professional life was pretty much a conversation with my 18-year-old self.”

Lunch was over too soon. We left our table and walked downstairs toward the exit. I sensed Toby was no longer behind me. I turned back to see him standing by the cutlery station, talking to the waiter-trainee and his waitress supervisor. The kid’s face broke into a grin as Toby leaned closer. “Excellent service, kid. One hell of a job.”

—Caleb Daniloff went on to earn an MFA from Columbia University’s graduate writing program and now writes full-time. He lives in Middlebury, Vermont.