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 doesnt
really matter. I dont recognize the bold-faced names leaping about
the nostalgic print of either column. And they surely wouldnt
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 didnt 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 Daviss
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 Burlingtons 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 Id 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, Id 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. Id 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 Fulwilers 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. Id have only crossed
fingers to get me through.
When Toby walked in, he didnt speak. He wore faded jeans and hiking
boots, rolled-up shirtsleeves and no tie. His hair and beard were slightly
unkempt as if hed 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 couldnt string the proper words
together in time, synapses caught between Slavic and Anglo constructions,
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 Tobys wallet exercise
You could tell Toby adored language. He proudly posted our strong sentences,
nice details, striking openings. He broke writing down, made it accessible.
We didnt dwell on grammar or sentence structure; the focus was
expression, content, and form. Led by Tobys 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
todays 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
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 kids 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 Universitys
graduate writing program and now writes full-time. He lives in Middlebury,