A TEACHER IN THE CLASSICAL SENSE
When I wandered into one of Smith Kirkpatrick’s undergraduate classes in the spring of 1980, I had never really heard anyone talk seriously about writing before. I had always done well in my literature courses, but I kept my own interest in the creative end of things more or less a secret. Among my friends at the university were several pre-law students, some business majors, a couple of failed baseball players still smarting over the sting of having been cut from the team, one or two aimless musicians...but nobody I could have talked to about writing stories. Anyway, I did not even know that there was a vernacular for such discussions, let alone a graduate program for those interested in the craft of fiction. Even though it took several weeks before Smith got around to reading one of my stories to the class and then soliciting responses, as was his method, I guess that at some point he remarked to me after class that I ought to apply to the program at UF, unless I had some other kind of plan. I didn’t.
Was I lucky? Did time prove that such was my destiny? I don’t know. For me, the struggle to write and to learn goes on, but I am sure that my relationship with Smith came at the right time in my life: I needed some direction, and he lit a passageway; I needed motivation, and true friends, and he brought me into a community of artists. I doubt whether I gave much back to him at all, and I probably let him down on many occasions, but as I have learned, that is the lot of the teacher. He was always the first to recognize mistakes, but he was also the first to forgive them.
Smith was a teacher in the classical sense, in that there was, foremost, a deadly seriousness about the subject matter. I understood this on the very first night of class, when he told us that he naturally assumed each one of us was determined to become a professional writer. We were not to be screwing around and missing classes; we were not a “club,” we were not hobbyists, and we certainly were not to bring in anything but our best work. Smith did not care for any of the latest theories on education or inclusion, and for all his gentility and his calm demeanor, his class was not a sensitivity training exercise. I also took a couple of classes with his former student, novelist Harry Crews, and Harry had a reputation for absolute brutality with students who missed the target, so to speak, but now I can honestly say I don’t know which man’s dismissal was more terrible. Granted, Harry’s rejection of a piece he saw as inferior was like blunt trauma, but Smith...he would sit and ruminate for a few moments, and then he would look down at the desk and say, in a withering tone, something like “I have no idea what this writer is trying to do here.” And that was enough to make you want to go back to your apartment, cram your pathetic stuff into your trunk, and go back to where you came from.
He was also a teacher from an older time in that he did not mind letting on that he was human and was therefore sometimes weak. I like to think that he drew some strength from us, his students, as we were mostly in our mid-twenties, and the world seemed marvelous and without limitation. Not long after I had met him and started to get to know him a bit better, I learned that Smith was looking into the abyss – the end of his second marriage, and as it all played out, it became ever more clear that it would not end cleanly. Even so, he never missed class, as I recall; nor did he ever miss our Thursday nights at the Winnjammer, down on Third Street, where the discussion of the craft of writing would continue, but without the restrictions of being on state-owned property.
Finally, the time came for Smith to move out of his own house, and Rick Barnett and I helped him move his things over to one of those drab student apartments in one of those boxy, characterless complexes you’ll find in virtually any university town in the U.S. As the afternoon wore on, I started to feel as if I were coming down with something – clammy and out-of-sorts (though it could also have been the shots of vodka we had been downing for most of the day). In any case, Smith gave me the spare bedroom that night in his brand new “home,” and by early the next morning I had a 103-degree fever, a choking cough, and an earnest wish to be left alone to die. Smith took me over to the campus infirmary, and within just a few days, I was back at my parents’ house in Jacksonville, recuperating from a bout with pneumonia. I don’t remember whether I ever thanked him for taking me in, but probably not. In fact, I’m sure that was only one simple kindness out of many that Smith performed unhesitatingly for students over the years. While in the classroom he could be demanding, exacting, even a taskmaster at times, outside of it, his instincts always ran toward unconditional friendship.
We admired him immensely for the things he had done and his modesty about them – his flying days and his service to his country, his intimacies with real literary luminaries such Andrew Lytle, John Ciardi, and James Dickey (and to be among these giants once in a while was another benefit of having Smith for an advisor which I, for one, stupidly took for granted at the time), and for his own novel, The Sun’s Gold, still a supreme work of craft which any student writer ought to study closely. But when I think of him now, and remember what was best about him, I think of him with his daughters, Anna and Katie. His love for them simply flowed out of him in an unending stream so pure and powerful that even I, in the stupor of youth and ego, could see it plainly.
Once we all took a trip together. A few of us grad students convinced Smith that the right thing for him to do was gather up the girls, pack a suitcase, and ride with us up to North Carolina for some skiing. Katie, who I believe could not have been much older than eight or so, gave us a non-stop comedy routine from the backseat of the car, as she married off older sister Anna to various ones of us along the way: “And do you take this woman to be your awfully withered wife?” She had us all laughing wildly, until we got into the mountains and realized that the white stuff blowing through the headlights was not sand but snow – something we never got to see. The unplowed road became very slippery, and so we pulled into a little mountainside hotel and got a couple of rooms. Smith and I slept on the floor in one of them, and the girls got the big double bed. I pretended to be asleep, but I have to say I have never been around a more loving parent, as Smith tucked his daughters in, in that strange room in the middle of nowhere. You could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices: they were a family forever, and I envied them. If I have been even half the father to my own children that Smith was to his, then I have succeeded.
Nonetheless, we all grew up, didn’t we? We moved along, however reluctantly and uncertainly. When I heard of Smith’s passing this last summer, I went to the shelf and took down my copy of The Sun’s Gold. Near the end, the protagonist, a kid from Arkansas who calls himself No Name, decides that his time at sea is over, that he has seen enough, and that his journey to find not his ancestry but his origins, is – at least for a while – done:
With his foot on the lower railing he felt the warm night.
To the mountains. It was about over now. He must remember
to take the seashells from the cardboard suitcase and drop them over the
side. He’d leave them here where they came from, and he’d go back.
I wish safe passage for a certain old boy from Arkansas as he makes the return voyage – my friend and teacher, Smith Kirkpatrick.