I wanted to thank him for what he’d done for me. I wanted to show my appreciation for having inspired me to keep writing poetry.
But it was too late.
I was a run-of-the-mill clueless college student at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio (USA). Sophomore, Junior, I’m not sure. I signed up for a poetry-writing class taught by one Dr. Lloyd Mills. I didn’t have any idea then what good fortune was mine.
Quiet and unassuming, Lloyd Mills consistently identified himself as “Mr. Mills,” rather than “Doctor.” He treated his students with dignity and respect, referring to us all as “Mr. ____” or “Miss ____.” He seemed to have limitless patience with us greenhorn poets, refraining from making any comment that wasn’t constructive. He wanted us all to succeed.
It was customary for Mills to make notes on the work we turned in, with suggestions for improvement. On one such homework assignment he wrote something that changed my life, something that I will forever remember.
I had turned in a poem that was, in my opinion, especially mediocre. With this particular piece Mills did more than just jot down a few suggestions. He put my homework into his typewriter and typed out a Sylvia Plath poem whose subject matter was similar to mine. His own handwritten comment said, “This can be made into a fine poem. Keep at it. I have typed in a little ‘inspiration.’ Try and top it.”
I repeat his quote here verbatim because decades later I still have that piece of paper. That he would suggest that I might after any length of time come close to “topping” a Plath poem both awed and astonished me.
Mills’ belief in me has kept me believing in myself as a writer. It’s kept me going even when I didn’t realize that it was his words driving me, his words that prevented me from giving up. I decided to try to contact him and tell him so.
When I did an internet search to look for him, I discovered that my inspiring professor had passed away a couple of years prior. How do I thank a man whose words still touch me from beyond the grave, the impact of whose words I was not to realize for decades?
All I can really say is “Thank you.” Thank you, Mr. Mills, for believing in me, for seeing potential in me when I didn’t see it in myself. You urged me to try to top a Plath poem. I have never stopped trying.
I hope I’ve made you proud.