by Bill Matthews

Bill MatthewsI am often asked why I majored in English. The glib and easy answer is, it was the only thing I was good at. But what really attracted me to English is what I saw in the teachers who taught me the discipline: a great eagerness and thirst for knowledge; a mind open to inquiry and deliberate thinking; and a respect for carefully considered thought, whether from the mind of a scholar or the mind of a scruffy nineteen-year-old student. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I had wandered through high school in a haze of adolescent angst fueled by long drives in the quickly disappearing New Jersey countryside. I like to think that the ambivalent, unmotivated, world-weary me of 1976 was a reflection of the times, the sad implosion of the hope of the sixties—but that is only part of the story. I was one of seven kids from a working class family, so close in age—the first six were born in just over seven years—that all through grade school and high school we were perceived as a single entity moving through the school system. The deal my parents made with us was that they would pay for one year of college, but that after that we were on our own.

When I stumbled into college, the draft had ended, deferments were no longer needed, and small colleges all over the country were desperate for students. A college in northern Maine caught me up, and before I knew what was happening, I was on a twelve-hour bus ride, six hundred miles away from home.

I suddenly found myself in love. Not with a person—that would come much later—but with words, stories, poems, essays, the back of cereal boxes, anything that had something to say. As this passion intensified, so did my anxiety over my rudderless life: I had to grab the rudder and steer it somewhere. The destination was not important, but the direction was. All the compass points (and my nearly empty wallet) seemed to point back to New Jersey. And so, in the fall of 1977, I found myself a student at Rutgers College. This was probably the first deliberate decision I had ever made in my life—and what a decision it was.

One of the first courses I took was a Victorian literature course with Barry Qualls, who seemed to have stepped out the pages of one of the novels we were reading, and who showed me how words could capture a whole world. George Kearns, whose glasses were on a permanent slide down his nose, taught me poetic form and meter. Pat Tobin, a fierce powerhouse of words and intellect, taught a course called “Time and the Novel,” which opened doors I didn’t even know existed, and that I still can’t figure out how to close. There was William Keach and Susan Wolfson, who taught Romantic literature, and the elegant, gentle David Kalstone, who taught modern poetry and gave me the gift of Elizabeth Bishop, the poet I return to again and again.

What being an English major at Rutgers has taught me is the most important thing of all: how to think. More specifically, how to move an idea from spark to flame, seed to flower, or, even more concretely, from thought to words on the page. This is a gift of immeasurable value that I’ve carried all through my life, and that has served me well in the nearly 30 years I’ve been a researcher, grant writer, fundraiser, pharmaceutical marketer, writer, parent, domestic partner, and now, rapidly aging baby boomer. Although Pat Tobin would have used her blue pen and written “cliché,” it is a truth universally acknowledged that, without Rutgers, I would not be the person I am today.