On a September morning in 2006, I took a seat close to the rear of the oldest graduate student lecture theater on campus. At first glance it’s an intimidating structure. A place where arches curve and angels meet wood. It was eight am on the tenth day of a month that marked a clear and definitive departure from what had been a comfortable and well compensated career as a flight paramedic.
Looking at my student handbook, sitting prominently on the desk in front of me, my name was written in a small, white sans serif font in the upper left corner of a dark grey plastic binder. It was followed by a five digit number, then a specific letter and number combination: MFA: CNF-MA-RA-36.
I had seen her walk in the room, and purposely did not give more than a polite appraisal. But as the commanding voice of The Legend, one of this countries most well respected literary icons and part time senior faculty of the program, began, I had absolutely no clue what that specific word and letter combination signified. After a quick scan of the room, viewing the other nineteen very tight, expressionless faces, each attempting to portray their own brand of cool detachment, I felt assured I was not alone in my lack of knowledge.
“If you will look to your binders, following your name is a list of random numbers and letters. Though I assure you, they are neither random, nor insignificant. The first three, you should recognize as your enrolled program. Followed by your declared focus, those being fiction, poetry, drama for the stage, screen writing, creative-non-fiction, or literature for children.”
The tone of her last three words gave the impression there was a small dog turd on the end of her nose. Clearly, The Legend was not a fan of the genre.
“The next two signify your highest educational achievement, followed by your entrance stream, undergraduate or masters preparation. Next if you are coming to us from having spent some time in the classroom of life, you will find RA, if you find UD, then your course has yet to begin.”
Clearly, The Legend was of the life long learner ilk, and being safely on this side of returning adult, exactly eleven of us sighed. We had made one right choice anyway.
“And we conclude with number of years on the planet, your age. Now, some things you should know. With very few exceptions, the more you have of each value, the better your chance of success in this program. Possession of advanced self insight and an open view of the nuances of human behavior will help greatly with that goal. And since writers are loathe to give advice, as never forget, we are always a competitive bunch, that concludes my welcome, introduction, and for lack of a better term, free tip session.”
Nervous, tentative laughter followed from some of us.
A smile, one that appeared to actually reach across the podium, slid over the face of The Legend. An objective, arms length critique revealed a clearly stunning older woman with a more than commanding presence. I recall being keenly aware for the first time that morning, The Legend actually had a name. Which she immediately introduced herself as, welcoming us to the first day of the 2006 MFA program in creative writing. Her visibly altered affect obvious, we each relaxed, took a breath. Then, to add tension to an already exceedingly tension filled moment, we received our instructions. Tell each other “who we were.”
“And please, don’t say you are happy to be here. We know that. You told us in the interview. At length.”
Her running commentary was proving the last Globe & Mail review to be more than accurate. The Legend really could freeze fire with an appropriately phrased word and stroke of her hair.
Fuck me! Make it good, I told myself. The margin for error seems rather slim.
“I assume it to be obvious, that I don’t mean tell us your sign. Be original, that’s why you are here. Let’s begin with the woman in blue, front row, far left.”
The woman in blue was very smooth, I recall. Though I have no idea what she said. Or if it was in fact, English. I was busy rehearsing what I would string together that sounded halfway formed.
“Last row, the gentleman in plaid shorts with the sandals. Who it seems, strolled here from the beach.”
As it slowly dawned on me that she was in fact referencing none other than myself, I made a quick decision and sealed it. Playing off the taken-by-surprise effect, I strung together the sort of random, but intentional story with unconnected traits. Something like:
“36, only child, in many ways hopelessly privileged, though no doubt in compensation for the hopelessly common name of Allan; trust me, that explains much.”
My expertly honed trait of the one eyebrow lift, neatly placed the period on the phrase, and I felt the disarming, yet mild self effacement proved successful, so I continued, stringing together a few more random but appropriately relevant things. It was a balance skill. One consisting of generous offerings of restrained personal information. The expectation was a delicate formula equaling enough, but never, ever too much.
The Legend zeroed in for the close.
“And tell us, Allan, has anyone been lucky enough to snag the sandals and shorts wearing beach dweller.”
The tone was brutal, but suggested more playfulness than challenge, yet offered no assurance either way. Meeting in the middle with an approach that shared the limelight, though didn’t defer, seemed the expected response. And the expected response, whatever it was, was crucial. This much I knew. I had done my research, and none of this was in any way unexpected.
“Snagged? I suppose, yes. But lucky?” The pause felt exaggerated, but they always do.
“He’d have to tell you.” The answer casually affected, yet at personal risk.
“Does ‘he’ have a name?” The response was inviting, not condescending.
“David”, I answered.
“Ah, a namesake from the classics. Thank you Allan. I’m guessing you are already making the name anything but common”
Her smile, unrestrained. Then, to all of us, “You’ll find we become, by necessity, a rather close group. Blessing and curse.”
In different ways, and with variant effect, that playful and casual, but oh so intentional banter was done with each of us. While the enthusiasm of the welcome was certainly not equal, no one was admonished, nor made an example of what not to do or say. A Teachable Moment.
Months later, we would discuss the idea that each response had been crafted to place us exactly where we needed to be, both socially and mentally. The specific comfort zone that was uniquely ours, had been showcased, validated, approved of, and released into the group. All in a two minute casual banter.
Ask any of the nineteen students present on that early September morning, and the answer will be the same. There is a reason we refer to her as The Legend.