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Professors We Love: Lorraine Brown

Editor’s note: Lorraine Brown, professor emerita of English and theater, passed away in February 2010. She taught thousands of students over the course of her 42-year career at Mason.


Lorraine Brown

I was getting near graduation and had reached something like the end of my tether—I didn’t think I would be able to write one more critical paper without losing my mind. The winter had been cold and hard, and the government was falling apart (this was March 1974) and I said to Lorraine, my professor for modern drama, “I don’t think I can muster the energy or the will to do one more critical paper.”

She looked at me with those soft understanding eyes and knowing that I was trying to turn myself into a writer, said, smiling, “Well, why don’t you write me a verse play, like the Yeats.” We had been studying [William Butler] Yeats’s verse play Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea. It was the single most glorious and saving thing any professor ever did for me. I did write a verse play for her, and it was terrible, of course, and she turned her best appreciation on it.

I later got the chance to be her colleague, and I sent students to her regularly. Later, she taught my daughter, Emily.

As a teacher, she was the best I ever saw—she was simply brilliant in all ways, not just with the material, but with the aspects of teaching that we seldom celebrate enough. She was sly in the classroom; she got everyone involved with an amazing artful leading-onward, using her charm and her gentle, accepting, deeply concerned curiosity about what you thought or felt. She made you feel her confidence in you.

As the discussions circled the room, even the uninspired and thick found themselves offering opinions, ideas, and thoughts about the question in hand. I once, out of my own curiosity, kept a little tally of where the questions went. The evenness of the numbers around the room was scary–somehow she’d asked each of 13 people almost exactly the same number of questions. And the questions led to other questions, and nobody sat it out because nobody could.

As her colleague, I gave her each of my books as they came, and with each one I got a kindly letter of appreciation, and comments that showed how deeply she had read and understood the work. In a way, I was always writing for her, from that nearly unreadable verse play to Hello to the Cannibals, the last one I wrote while working at Mason. And I still write for her. We are always writing for the ones who understood, and nobody understood more deeply than this lovely and brilliant and completely kind friend.

Richard Bausch, BA English ’74, is the Moss Chair of Excellence in the Writing Program at the University of Memphis. Awarded the 2004 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, he is the author of 11 novels and eight story collections, including the recently released Something Is Out There. Prior to his Memphis appointment, Bausch was the Heritage Chair in Writing at Mason.