My alumni magazine came in the mail yesterday and as always it was quite enjoyable, until I reached the last few pages and some news that made me immediately reach for the tissues. I am not sure how I missed hearing of it, to be honest. Because a woman who was a profound influence on me passed away.
I did the last 2 years of my degree at St. Thomas University, a liberal arts university in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was the finest 2 years of learning I ever had. I always felt like it was about growing minds and expanding horizons and fuelling enthusiasm. Two professors stand out as being incredibly influential and I dare say I might not have had the confidence to write if not for them. The first was Fenton Burke, who died a while ago, making me reflect on memories of sitting in his various classes, enjoying his dry wit and love of literature and a fair amount of Maritime salt. The second was quite a contrast - statuesque, elegant Tish Thornton, who was scary-smart, put together, and might have been quite intimidating if it hadn't been for a soul deep love of literature and a wonderful tendency to push - and encourage - her students. She always had an open door if I wanted a chat or had a question. She was the kind of professor who motivated me to want to do my best for her. I never wanted to be responsible for disappointing Professor Thornton.
Tish Thornton-Bird died in March.
Tish Thornton taught me American Lit and opened my mind to Edith Wharton and Hemingway and Faulkner. She taught me Women's Lit - Kate Chopin and Virginia Woolf, Austen and Dickenson. She also taught me Creative Writing. She encouraged me to enter a Postcard Story contest (which I won) and the first money I ever made as a writer was The Creative Writing Prize the year I graduated from university for a collection of poetry I'd written. The money disappeared long ago. I still have the letter with her signature that was presented to me during Convocation.
Tish Thornton also made it possible for me to attend the Maritime Writers Conference at the University of New Brunswick that summer - on a scholarship.
Sometimes I wonder if educators really understand the lasting effects they have on their students. How their encouragement helps set someone along their path. I stopped writing for a long time, but the love and desire remained and when I picked up pen (or keyboard again) those past "victories" gave me the confidence to try again, even if it was only to rediscover the joy of creating worlds and characters and happy endings. I have always been so grateful that I finished my degree at STU and that I had such wonderful professors.
Knowing Tish is gone feels a little like someone blowing out a candle. And I wish I'd had the chance to thank her in person after all these years.