I began taking Tim's class through a Duke Continuing Education program. Our class was small, but consisted entirely of women. Tim's brutal writing style gave us permission to write words that we would never dare say. Like his wife at the time, we were mostly a proper bunch, raised in good Southern Baptist and Methodist and Presbyterian homes. He suggested we send something to the local papers, saying that the weeklies were always looking for writing. A few weeks later, my first non-fiction essay was published in The Independent.
He told us that he taught a fiction class at N.C. State. Later that year, his class was a present I gave myself for Christmas. I had been flirting with many classes after receiving my four-year degree, but was more drawn to writing than my other interests. Besides, Tim had told me I was a good writer. And to me at that time, Tim was a god.
I was the only person to make the transition from the Duke Continuing Education class to N.C. State's fiction class. Perhaps for that reason, Tim seemed to feel close to me and I to him. In addition, our marriages seemed to be at the same level of disintegration. I had noticed that the way he talked about his wife at the time, although respectful, was different than it had been in the previous class. He had also mentioned buying land on his own.
I continued to take my stories to him, believing that even in this much larger class, I had a special relationship with him. He seemed to be drawn to my writing. He often praised my stories and suggested I send them to contests. He told me about his various readings and I attended as many as I could. I was often the only one of his students in the audience.
There was something about him, perhaps the Scotch-Irish heritage and its trademark reddish hair, that reminded me of the man who'd raised me, something about his Southern drawl that made me believe each word he said. He continued to tell me what a good writer I was. I continued to write. My marriage continued to weaken.
Tim had told us that he enjoyed taking his fiction class at NCSU out for drinks at the end of the semester. I looked forward to going. Although I felt a great kinship with the other writers in the class, I also felt as though I was special to Tim. Our office conferences throughout the semester had led me to believe that I could publish fiction books as easily as he could. As he'd said so many times, I was "a good writer."
Perhaps I should not have gone out for a drink later that evening, after other students had left, with him alone. By that time in the semester, we both saw divorce looming heavily over our heads. Over 10 years older than I, and a teacher who seemed to love my work, he was very much of a father figure to me. I trusted him. Even as he drove me to my car, I thought about how down-to-earth he was. He was pondering his second divorce; I opened up to him about my marriage. I believed I could learn a lot from him.
He stopped his truck close to my car and reached over to hug me. Of course I was riddled with the star factor, a local author whose name was featured in the papers regularly, a promising writer who had conquered cancer and who handled snakes for fun. But most of all, to me he was a teacher. I had always trusted teachers. I reached back to hug him and he began what could have been a long and passionate kiss. As much as part of me was flattered, another part knew that I still had a husband to return to that evening. And he still had a wife. I politely pulled away and said goodbye.
The next semester, we met once or twice for a bagel across from Tompkins Hall at NCSU, but we never mentioned that evening. As I watched his eyes wander when another woman walked by, I wondered if there had been any other women who had faced a hug in his truck.
I later wondered if the term "good writer" was a euphemism for women he liked. Only after taking other fiction classes did other writing teachers and classmates teach me that I had far to go before my stories were good enough for publication. Until I studied writing in more depth, I never understood why I didn't win the contest that I'd entered in which he was the judge. Only later did I learn that others were far more adept at fiction than I.
Clinging desperately to my fiction hopes after becoming a graduate student and suffering from a post-divorce writer's block too large to crush, I submitted the story to my class that he'd told me would win awards. I did nothing to it, just submitted it as I had in his class. The class comments were horrid and the teacher gave it a low grade. Finally, I realized the truth about Tim's comments. My hero had fallen and so had my dreams of becoming just like him.
After I had become a lecturer at NCSU myself, I talked to a former student of Tim's. He had once taken Tim's class and said that Tim was "a really cool guy." When the former student realized that fiction "just wasn't for" him, he stopped going to class. Tim gave him a B. I thought about the accolades and the A that I had received. The hard work I put into the class seemed worthless once I understood that I could have just given up and still gotten a B.
Although I eventually became an English teacher, I gave up my dreams of becoming a fiction writer. A few rejections from publishers and a few semesters of graduate school had made me feel incompetent. If I were going to publish fiction, someone else would have noticed by that time, as someone did with Tim. I had lost the false confidence that Tim had instilled.
Eventually Tim remarried, as did I. He was easy to like, hard to dislike, no matter what the circumstances. Before I moved to California, I occasionally visited him in his office at NCSU. He was always eager to talk. The last time I saw him, his thumb was swollen, bitten by a snake. Part of his attraction as a writer and as a person was his constant flirtation with disaster. I was sure that whenever I moved back to North Carolina, I could go by Tim's office and he would be there to talk. The e-mail that my ex-husband sent shocked me. Tim was immortal to me.
Upon reading on the Internet the many articles following his death, I could not help but think about my teaching mentor at NCSU, Robbie Knott. Even though she was an extraordinary writer and teacher and even though she died of cancer way too young, as did Tim, her death did not draw the massive media attention of Tim's. She was an understated woman who earned the trust of others. She taught me that students earn their grades and that if a student fails, it is unfair for me not to give that person a failing grade. As much as she taught me, and others, her life and death did not receive the special headlines of Tim's.
I also thought about the other excellent writing teachers I had at NCSU: Gerald Barrax, Neil Caudle, Judith Ferster, Tom Hester, Steve Katz, John Kessel, R.V. Young, and others. I wondered if, after their deaths, their obituaries would garner the words of praise that local writers had for Tim.
In the articles I have read about Tim since his death, his position at NCSU has been elevated in newspaper articles to "Associate Professor," although his official title, according to the NCSU web site, is "Lecturer." He has been called a "man of letters," although he only received a B.A. degree in science. Like many great writers, his life continues to be exaggerated after his death. I am sure he would want nothing less. But was his life more worthy of honor than the teachers and writers who didn't handle snakes, who hadn't worked in carnivals, who gave students the grades they deserved? In remembering this Southern hero, I realize that the heroic deeds of many will remain unsung.