Life-changing people

Luria Walker

Four people at Barnard changed my life, as did the idea of the college and the university.

I was solitary at Barnard. I commuted from Brooklyn, so I never became part of the community. Residence at the college was not a possibility, because of money, but, more importantly, because my mother was dying of metastatic breast cancer through my college years. I fled from our apartment in Brooklyn each morning, then turned around and raced back on the subway, anxiety about what I might find at home fueling the train to go faster. At the same time, the impressions from my classes flooded through me, prompting me to resist and resent the need to tear myself from what had become my sanctuary high on Broadway.

I had no time to make friends with any of you, except in passing.

When I encountered Barbara Cross, Professor of English, she seemed to embody the Bronte sisters, or a heroine from their novels. In Eleanor Rosenberg's class, I was initiated into a female regiment of rigorous learning and high expectations. Remington Patterson was my advisor; his description of his scholarship in the detritus of sixteenth century life provided my initial glimpse of the possibilities of historical research.

Above all, it was Joann Morse who inculcated me in the alchemical mixture of language and meaning. In her classroom, the spring days stood still; young as I was, I yearned with Yeats to be gathered "into the artifice of eternity." Afterward, riding home to Brooklyn in the dusk, the rush of "intellectual beauty" — Mary Wollstonecraft's phrase — caused everything else to fall away, peripheral and mortal, unable to reach toward perfectibility, like the life of the mind that Joann made palpable.

After graduation, Barbara Cross asked me to be her assistant for the fall novel course where I first met her. This position continued for several years: I had occasion to meet with her in her large, messy apartment, know her husband and children slightly, but I never lost the sense that she was a creature from another time and place, even as she offered me a sandwich. I lunched regularly with Remington; sometimes Joann joined us, and one great summer Saturday, I visited Joann and her husband at their country place with my young husband, a Columbia College alumni. These relationships sustained me as fledgling academic, doctoral student, and apprentice scholar. The quality of those hours in Joann's presence taught me the power of a Great Teacher. Joann's teaching was and remains the standard of magic I expect from myself and my own students.

Barnard as cloister, magnet, and beacon lives in me.

Gina Luria Walker