Try to ignore the horse figurine behind my head. Here’s a picture of me with one of my all-time favorite mentors and a great friend, Dr. Dale Pratt. He and Dr. Valerie Hegstrom visited Southern California last week with Fernando López del Oso, an up-and-coming Spanish science fiction author. Fernando already has a premio minotauro under his belt for his 2009 El templo de la luna and his newest book, Yeti, does not disappoint. While it is always exciting to receive Spanish celebrities, the best part of the visit was seeing Dale and Valerie. Before describing why I admire them as much as I do, I suppose I should provide some of my background.
Back in 2004 (yes, forever ago), I was edging towards graduation as an undergraduate at BYU with a major in Clinical Laboratory Science and a minor in Spanish. The goal at the time was to become a pediatrician and, given that CLS majors did blood, urine, and fecal analysis, you can imagine that anyone holding that degree was pretty much guaranteed a job. After some years as a lab tech, I planned to make the jump to pediatrics.
A year before, in 2003, something pivotal happened: I went to see BYU’s Don Gil de las calzas verdes. The performance was incredible. I was captivated from the beginning when the actors rolled the massive–yet incredibly mobile–stage/cart to an open space beside the library, set up the simple yet meaningful props, and delivered a smashing interpretation of Tirso de Molina’s classic play. After thoroughly enjoying the performance, I determined that I had to participate somehow in the Spanish Golden Age Theater (SGAT) program the following year, regardless of the schedule problems it might present.
When the call for participants in 2004 rolled out, touting the performance of El muerto disimulado, I eagerly attended the first casting meeting. Upon realizing the demand that the play was going to have on my schedule, I rescinded my earlier conviction and became terribly conflicted: I wanted to participate, but could not commit myself to the time and effort required of all participants, especially given how much time I was already putting into my major. I decided that I would have to shelf the SGAT and move on towards becoming a physician. At the time, although difficult, it was the right decision.
Later that year, I went with my retinue of fellow CLS majors to visit a hospital, where the bulk of us would be hired, to observe a typical day of work in the lab. I was excited; it was a chance to catch a glimpse of what I would be dedicating the next few years of my life to. The experience I had at the hospital, however, was far from inspirational. If anything, it proved to be the determining factor that distanced me from Clinical Laboratory Science altogether. While there, I watched as each lab technician, bent over his/her microscope, carefully and silently analyzed their samples. Alone. All by themselves. Not communicating. I even asked some of them how much they interacted with their colleagues, many of which simply shook their heads and laughed. One (disgruntled) lab tech told me, “it’s me, the microscope, and someone’s s%!$.” Suffice it to say that the visit wasn’t terribly appealing. For me, someone who has discovered that he needs sociability to survive, I had a small mid-of-a-mid life crisis and, after some significant deliberation and prayer, determined that CLS was not my future after all.
This left me at an academic standstill. I was one class (CHEM 352, for what it’s worth) away from completing the equivalent of a “pre-med minor” at BYU and couldn’t fathom taking the course. I knew that I did not want to become a physician. This was not an easy decision. I had been telling people since as long as I could remember that I was going to be a pediatrician. That was just the way that it was going to be. The hospital visit was, in a very real sense, a rude awakening, albeit one that, looking back now, I am very grateful to have had. To make a long story short, I decided to change my major from CLS to Humanities and, realizing that most Hum majors double-majored in another subject, I boosted my minor (Spanish) to a second major. From a CLS major, I went full-bore liberal arts.
While working on my Spanish minor, I took Spanish 339 (intro to Spanish literature) with Dr. Pratt. I remember enjoying the class immensely. It was a pleasure to prepare for and exciting to attend. The lessons were insightful and the books that we read were meaningful to me, a far cry from my chemistry or anatomy textbooks. While the latter texts contained interesting and valuable information, they simply did not resonate with me the same way that Jorge Manrique’s “Coplas por la muerte de su padre,” Ramón Sender’s Réquiem por un campesino español, or Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir did. And Dr. Pratt did a marvelous job presenting the texts to a classroom full of literary novices. His voices (if you haven’t heard his don Quijote imitation, you are missing out), his enthusiasm, and his genuine love for literature made the class wonderful. I really feel like that class was foundational for what I’m doing today.
Shortly after dropping CLS, I realized that I would be able to participate in the SGAT program the following year. I sought out the individuals responsible for the program and realized, to my relief, that Dr. Pratt and Dr. Hegstrom were in charge. I scheduled a meeting with Dr. Hegstrom, with whom I was taking Span 441 (Survey Span Lit). This must have been right around the time that I was wandering a little aimlessly. I had just changed my major and really had little to no idea what I was doing, where I would be working, or how I would support a family. I asked Valerie, who patiently listened to me, all of those questions. Looking back, some of my inquiries were a little silly, but at the time they were genuine concerns I had: I asked her if I had what it takes to teach Spanish and if I could raise a family on a Spanish professor’s income. Her answer, which seemed a little unusual at the moment, was to open her door and knock on Dr. Turley’s. I didn’t know Dr. Turley at all at the time, so it was kind of weird. When he opened the door, Valerie asked him, “Jeff, are you able to take care of your family with your income as a Spanish professor?” I think he was a little taken back by the question, but after a little explanation and coaxing, helped me to understand that yes, even Spanish professors can have healthy, happy, and successful families. Odd as it may sound, that moment is unforgettable for me. In a sense, it helped me to understand that what I was doing was ok, that I would make it. At the same time, it helped forge a lasting relationship between Valerie and I that I hold very dear. From that point on, she became a mentor for me.