Amherst Magazine

The Teacher

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As a visiting instructor at Amherst, Wallace, pictured in Illinois in 1996, was “a soft-spoken, sweet-natured man who wrapped his head in a signature bandana and carried a sharp red pencil to ward off grammatical and stylistic offenses.”

By Sue Dickman '89

Dave Wallace was my teacher, at Amherst, in the fall of 1987. I was back at school after a year off, a year in which I’d contemplated transferring. But that spring, when I was trying to figure out what to do, my dad sent me a clip from the Wall Street Journal called “A Whiz Kid and his Wacky First Novel,” about Dave’s first book, The Broom of the System, which he’d originally written as his senior thesis at Amherst. I didn’t decide to go back to Amherst because of him, but when I got back and found out that he was teaching that semester, a single creative writing class, I immediately applied to get in.

That fall, Dave was 25. He had long hair and always came to class with a tennis racket and sometimes cookies. He had us take breaks so he could smoke. We loved him. I can pretty safely say that most of the women in the class (and possibly some of the men) had crushes on him. He was goofy and charming and cute and unlike any other teacher I’d ever had. But that’s not why I remember the class so clearly. He was a wonderful teacher, even at 25, even just out of grad school. He was tough in workshop but not mean. He introduced me to writers I probably never would have discovered on my own, like Lee K. Abbott, and made me look at writers I already knew, like Lorrie Moore, in a different way. He had us read a Stephen King story about a possessed laundry machine (“The Mangler”) in conjunction with a prize-winning short story told from the point of view of a dead body (“Poor Boy”) to illustrate the differences between literary and genre fiction. There were other tangible things. I used to confuse further and farther, and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I’d confused them yet again, and in the margins, he’d written, simply, “I hate you.” I’ve never confused them since.

Mostly, he was the first person who really made me think I could be a writer. I’d applied to the class with a (clearly autobiographical) short story called “At Charlie’s House” that I’d written the semester before I left for my year off. On the basis of that story, he let me in to the class. But when I wanted to talk to him more about it, he told me that, in truth, it wasn’t actually a very good story. But that I could write that story told him that I could write better stories. “I don’t know what’s going on with you and that Charlie guy,” I remember him saying. He advised me to move on. I can’t say I did that entirely, where “Charlie” was concerned, but I put the story away, and I tried to write better ones.

We stayed in touch for a few years after that semester. One letter arrived when I was in India for the first time, a letter he wrote mostly to tell me that he’d sent in my letters of recommendation for grad school. He told me other things, though, like that he was in a halfway house for drug rehabilitation. It was a strangely intimate letter from a former teacher to a former student, especially since I hadn’t known he had any issues with drugs. He told me that he wasn’t much of a traveler, so he was impressed with my bravery about going to India. He signed it “Love,” but with his full name. “Love, David Foster Wallace.”

When I heard of his death, I hadn’t seen him or talked to him in more than 20 years. And while I was shocked and stricken and incredibly sad, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I often said, at the time and since, that he was the smartest person I’d ever met. I think that’s probably still true, and it’s probably true for a lot of other people—that he was the smartest person they’d ever met. Even at 21, I could tell that it was the kind of smart that made you strange, that it was too much. Even then, we got glimpses of another side of him.

His death makes me sad for countless reasons, but one is the loss of such an inspiring, dedicated and generous teacher. I can’t say that he made me a writer, because I probably would have figured it out some other way, further on in time. But I definitely know it wouldn’t have happened the way it happened if it hadn’t been for him, if he hadn’t been so smart and so tough, if he hadn’t challenged me the way he did, if he hadn’t pushed me to challenge myself. Amherst was lucky to have had him here in the classroom, however briefly.

Photo copyright Gary Hannabarger/Corbis.