The Calvin College Bill VandeKopple Memorial Writer’s Retreat featuring my headless body, 2011. Photo credit: Caroline Higgins
I remember reading something that I wrote aloud—it was about Florida and being alone, and I remember Professor Bill Vande Kopple’s response. “We’ve gotta find a place for that!” He laughed at the funny parts and sighed emphatically at the serious parts. He was tall, he wore glasses and a mustache, and he died unexpectedly a few years ago.
I didn’t know him well. I knew he was a sweet man, capable of hilarious and inappropriate jokes—the kind that charming sixty-year-old men can get away with. I didn’t know know if he dropped these intentionally or not, because he would apologize and act surprised at the quip he had made. He was thoughtful, caring, and he knew the importance of encouragement.
When I worked at Calvin after graduating, we went to the gym at the same time, which really meant that we went to the locker room at the same time, which really meant that we were both naked at the same time. We never talked long; conversations were held in the time it takes to change from work attire to gym, or in between sets of that pec machine, but I learned about his kids, their kids, vacations, and fishing. I asked him about graduate school, he asked me for what purpose, I said writing, he said forget it—“just keep writing.”
There’s something about an English professor telling you to keep writing. These people read. Normal people read a couple books here and there… these professors are not normal people. They devour books. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me that someone with authority on the matter told me that I was good and that I shouldn’t stop.
English 101 was the first class I excelled in. Professor Kortenhoven shocked me when she, a professor at a Christian school, made the class read Anne Lamott’s piece on the importance of writing Shitty First Drafts.
Professor Zwart’s class was the first one where I began to love reading. She assigned Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and I couldn’t put it down. She joked and “Rumpelstiltskinned” my C- comments into A+ gold insights. She became my advisor and welcomed me into the department even though I wasn’t the typical English major. I was too involved with hockey, not well-read enough, not a good enough writer, but she and others persisted.
Professor Vanden Bosch filled in for one of her classes, and he was talking about Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “This book is a coming-of-age tale,” he said. “Germans have a single word for this: Bildungsroman.” I watched him write this word on the whiteboard, hearing its rough German syllables pinball around my brain. Bil-dungs-ro-man: a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education. “A coming-of-age tale.” This was where I came of age. I was born in Boston, grew up in Lexington, and came of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
It was Professor Schmidt’s creative writing class, Professor Klatt’s poetry, Professor Rienstra’s creative nonfiction, where she asked me for my opinion on something she wrote, and actually included my suggestions. It was Professor Saupe’s Shakespeare class, where, upon learning I was on the improv team, she said, “If you come in late one more time, you have to improvise an entire Shakespeare play.” It was Professor Holberg’s senior seminar, where I wrote “the paper I should have written in college,” which was a mediocre screenplay.
It was these small movements forward in reading and thinking and writing that made me love it. It wasn’t one big leap—it was progress by a thousand tiny steps.
But once you graduate and professors are gone, what do you do? Calvin College loves Frederick Buechner, and teaches students his message—that their vocation is where their great passion and the world’s great need meet. I love the idea, but it doesn’t provide accurate expectations for the struggle ahead. The frustrations, the delays, the heartbreaks, the hurts, the ups and downs, are all overlooked in the quote because there’s no concept of time. Sometimes it takes a while to find your great passion… I imagine that it takes a while to find how that passion matches the world’s great need as well.
Right after I graduated I was wrestling with the “what’s the point” of writing. It was around this time that Professor Sarina Moore told me that she read my blog and loved it. She told me I was good, and she told me there was this idea floating around with a few people in the department—some kind of blog or platform where graduates would be able to write. And might I be interested?
Months later I wrote my first piece for the post calvin about moving away from Grand Rapids.
I’m grateful today. I’m grateful for time: looking back I’m seeing pieces that I wrote that I’d like to destroy in a fire, and some that I’m proud of. I’m grateful to Abby and Josh and Will and Debra, and Abby again for being a great editor and dealing with my grammar. I am grateful to have been a Calvin grad, to have worked for Calvin, and glad to have written for the post calvin. I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to keep writing, and for the accountability of my peers—knowing that discerning readers and exceptional writers are coming here daily, weekly, and monthly made the effort worthwhile.
We’ve gotta find a place for that.
I think it felt good to hear this because Bill said “we,” not “you.” He didn’t say, “You go out and figure this out alone.” He said, We have to find a place. And here it is.
Thanks for reading,
PS: If you’re not sick of me you can follow here: https://barttocci.wordpress.com/
Bart Tocci (’11) lives in Boston where he writes essays, performs at open mics, and threatens to start taco restaurants. He’s been told that he looks like the kind of guy who stands up for what’s right. And who goes to the store before the party. Read more here: barttocci.wordpress.com