Sunday, October 08, 2006

My English Teachers (V): Marvin Thompson

From 1971 to 1973 I pursued my M.A. degree at St. Cloud State College in St. Cloud, Minnesota, lured into the frozen North by one of the best graduate assistantship stipends in English then available. During my first year there, a year in which I taught on my own for the first time (among my freshman composition students was the young woman who would later become not only the producer of National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion but the significant other of Garrison Keillor as well), I studied Shakespeare under Dr. Marvin Thompson, a man who inspired us not just by his dedication and his learning (I have never had a teacher better prepared for class--how many times, I wonder, had he re-read Hamlet?--or more concerned over his students' development) but by his courage.

A polio victim, Marv Thompson was a paraplegic with no use of his legs and only minimal use of his hands. Every day one of the graduate students came to his house, lifted his small body out of his home wheelchair, placed him in another chair, buckled him in, and pushed him to school, where he was again transferred, this time to his Riverview Hall motorized wheelchair. After completing a second course, a summer seminar on Christopher Marlowe, with Dr. Thompson, I was honored to be asked to become his "pusher" (as he liked to call it) for my second year at St. Cloud. During the following year we came to know each other well.

A certain bond develops in such a relationship; I picked him up on a daily basis; I pushed him through snow drifts, we skated along icy side walks together; we talked and talked. He told story after story (I remember in particular 1) his hilarious, Monty-Python-like, tale of frustrating attempts to use his not-very-good Italian while crossing busy intersections while studying in Rome and 2) a self-deprecating account of the time an inebriated former pusher had dropped him in a ice-covered parking lot, breaking his already useless right leg.) In the classroom, he was the most purely Socratic teacher I have ever seen; when he asked "Mr. Lavery, what do you think," I seemed always able to discover, though I knew not how, that I had an answer. In class or out, he was never in a bad mood, never depressed, never anything but enthusiastic about teaching and indeed every aspect of the profession. Though I was at the time a quite dark and morose being, undergoing my own Great Depression, struggling with a continuing religious crisis, agonizing over my personal life and my relationship with women, reading far too much existentialist literature and philosophy (my bible those days was Sartre's Nausea), I found myself uplifted in Marvin Thompson's presence, inspired by his zest for life.

1 comment:

Jay Gramith said...

He was my hero. I left St. Cloud State with a B.A. in English in 1974. Took two Shakespeare and two modern European lit classes from him. He was also my academic adviser.

A marvelous teacher, just as you describe, I'll never forget him motoring around in front of the semi-circle of seated students, asking simple questions, always directed to individuals. His classes were dances of discussion, led by his contagious enthusiasm and probing questions.

On one occasion he was for some reason left in the student activities building to find a temp "pusher" for himself. He hailed me and asked me to push him to Riverview. On the short walk he asked me one question after another about myself, each a followup to the one before.

When we reached his office he asked me to lift him from his push chair to his motorized chair. I didn't know until now that this was normally done by grad students. I lifted his small and frail body with no thought of awkwardness, only gratitude that he allowed me to do it.

Jay Gramith