My undergraduate education took place at Siena College, and the focus was on science. I was a chemistry major, and I enjoyed taking upper level electives in departments unrelated to chemistry. I didn’t feel the science classes were challenging at all, so taking an upper level class in a different department and doing well would fulfill my arrogance. I also extracted humor from this as well. My intention going in was to try hard and, if the grade was falling below an A, to switch to pass/fail status mid-semester, as to not lower my GPA due to taking unnecessarily challenging electives.
The courses I took in the English department were two of the most memorable courses I took in the 4 years I was at Siena College. I took a science fiction course which will be the topic of a future post and a also short story course. The short story course was taught by Dr. Naton Leslie, who, unbeknownst to me at the time, is an esteemed, published poet and short story author.
On the first day of class, he handed us a syllabus and indicated that we’d be responsible for two essays throughout the semester and also specified that he was not as forgiving as other professors with grading essays. When the time of the first essay was nearing, he kept stressing that he frowned upon the “Regents-sytle” of essay writing, and I even think he may have called that formulaic approach “garbage.” His assignment to us was to pick a classic American short story and to explore an original thesis pertaining to the story in an essay. I don’t recall there being a minimum page requirement.
I handed in the paper in on a Tuesday. The papers were handed back to us without any markings on the Thursday of that week. He then let us know that nobody followed the directions and gave us another chance to complete the assignment. Looking around the room, I could tell that people were worried that they couldn’t complete the assignment; I could tell by the looks on the students’ faces. Dr. Leslie had thrown down the gauntlet and challenged us to be creative, something that I really appreciated.
I went back to my room and read the story that I originally chose again, “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe. I felt like I noticed a trend in the writing style, but I wasn’t sure. I read the story again, this time paying close attention to the adjectives being used. I was on to something. On the third re-read, the thesis popped out at me; I knew what my essay was going to be about. I sat down and belted out the best six pages I have ever written.
After handing in the paper, I was worried of Dr. Leslie’s impression. It had become very important to me to have his approval of my thesis and get a good grade on the essay. My memory is foggy, but I remember getting a rather high mark on that essay, higher than the peers I knew in the class who were English majors, so I felt like I accomplished something major. (I got an A in the course, so I couldn’t have gotten less than that on the essay)
At the end of the semester, when I went to Dr. Leslie’s office to learn my grade. He and I had a conversation about my plans after college. I told him that I was going to graduate school in science; he complimented me on my writing and participation in the class and wished me luck in the future. It was one of those conversations you remember for a long time.
A few years later, I had learned that he had published a book of short stories the year that I graduated, 2001. Marconi’s Dream and other stories has been on my list of things to read ever since then, and I finally got around to reading it recently.
The compilation consists of 13 different stories, all penned by Dr. Leslie. In each story, he manages to describe the realities containing his characters so well that you feel you are part of the reality. He also manages to make the characters painfully human; the problems the characters face are unique but the emotions the characters exhibit in dealing with conflict are common.
My personal favorite story in the book is “Give Me a Sign,” a story about a man who is burdened with suspicion that he caused the death of Harry Houdini with a punch to the abdomen; actually, the character isn’t suspicious, he is convinced he caused Houdini’s death. The crux of the plot of the story is that the man holds a seance every year on Halloween because he expects to get a visit from the spirit of Houdini. As you read the story, you cannot help but acknowledge the humor that Dr. Leslie is trying to convey, and at the end, there’s a bit of a punchline that makes for a very fun little payoff of the story.
I would highly recommend reading this book of contemporary short story gems, and not just because Dr. Leslie is someone I have encountered in my life, but also because I believe that his story telling is unique and something special. I will certainly be exploring some of Dr. Leslie’s other works.