During my first semester at Florida State University–and impossible 24 years ago–I took a creative writing class from a professor named Jerome Stern. I had no idea at the time that he had a nationally-syndicated NPR show, that publications like Harper’s and Playboy sought out his work, or that he was, in general, a big-time guy. I had no concept of what it took to get where he was. I had the vague sense that professors got their jobs like K-12 teachers get their jobs: they get a degree and apply at the local school. I didn’t know that things like terminal degrees and publications and contributions to the overall body of knowledge were just the minimum requirements.
I did recognize immediately, though, that he was an incredible teacher. I’ve had other classes, other teachers who were as influential, as meaningful, but I’ve never had class or teachers who were more so.
Jerome was the first professor I had who showed me how to take this jumbled mass of raw words and start to put shape to them. For that reason, he is one of the three FSU professors to whom I dedicated Madhouse Fog.
I bring him up now because, at the beginning of every fall semester, I reread his story “University.” I’ve been doing this for five or six years now. Every year, it becomes more meaningful. Every year, it breaks my heart all over again.
Now, I’m sharing the story with you. Click the link at the end of this sentence to read it: Stern_University
Though I was still blond and kinda heavy when I hit my early thirties, though I did spend ten post-college years wandering around the country and doing wild things, I’m not the returning student in the story. Jerome died before I made it into my early thirties and was able to visit him again. If I’m not mistaken, he’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the time when he wrote this story. He was heading into his final school year, one that he wouldn’t live through. Part of the power of the story lies in knowing that he made this kind of sense out of his life while facing an imminent death. Part of the power comes from me personally missing they guy.
I’m thankful that he left at least this legacy.