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  • Bouchercon 2010: A Mysterious Encounter with My Past
Bouchercon 2010: A Mysterious Encounter with My Past
Written by
Jane Hammons
October 2010
Written by
Jane Hammons
October 2010
If you had asked me a couple of years ago what Bouchercon was, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but if you ask me now, I’ll tell you much more than you really want to know. I immersed myself in four days of panels, interviews and book signings and had a lot of fun doing it. And I have some more to write about that, but first this. On the first day of the conference, I’d planned to go to a panel called The Year of the Locusts because it was about books made into movies. The moderator was Kelli Stanley. I’d just read City of Dragons, a mystery set in 1940 San Francisco—the history of the city is beautifully rendered in this novel—and Ken Bruen was on the panel. You want to go, too, right? But as I was skimming through the program, a name caught my attention: Barbara Corrado Pope. Her name might be more familiar to you in an academic context than that of a mystery writers convention: she founded the Women Studies program at the University of Oregon and led the movement at UO to integrate race and gender into the curriculum. She has only recently published mystery novels. Barbara had a profound effect on my life when I was an undergraduate. And so I rushed to her panel on using real people as fictional characters. Unfortunately the panel was right next door to the Locusts, which was held in a heavily miked auditorium, whereas this panel was in a small room, and the speakers had no microphones. But I remembered sitting in Barbara’s Women’s History classes at the University of New Mexico in the early 1970s when I was a sophomore. And I knew she would be heard. After all, nearly 40 years had passed, and I am still hearing her voice. It is not an exaggeration to say that Barbara was the first teacher who ever took me seriously. None of my high school teachers thought of me as “college material.” A few male professors had propositioned me; no one had ever wanted to talk about my ideas. But close to my heart--even still--are the comments Barbara made on a paper I wrote about Emily Dickinson. I argued against Freudian interpretations of Dickinson’s poetry and life, cautiously feeling my way through the academic articles and books I read and testing them against my own readings of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. Nineteen and I dared to have my own reading of Dickinson! Not only did Barbara let me have my reading, she encouraged it. If you are under 40, this might not sound like a big deal to you, but trust me, it was not common in university or any other classrooms when I was going to school. If a teacher asked, “What do you think,” he was really asking, “What does this mean?” And he was looking for the right answer. The close attention to my writing would have been enough. But if Barbara saw me on campus, she’d sit down for a quick chat, or call out my name with a cheerful wave. While this might be common now, it was rare then. Barbara was the most energetic teacher I have ever had. She filled the classroom with her enthusiasm, but she also shared that space with her students, eliciting our opinions, encouraging us to think harder, write better: to grow as students and as women. So I sat at the panel like a silly fangirl waiting for a chance to rush the podium, not as a fan of her novels—I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t aware of them—but as a fan of her teaching. When I introduced myself, I got choked up and blurted out something like “I was a student of yours and you changed my life.” When I mentioned UNM, her eyes grew wide, and we talked for a minute about the curriculum there—Women in History meant all women in all history in two semesters, not the more specialized courses you see today. She had been the lone woman on the History Department faculty. After the conference, I ran home and, of course, googled Barbara. I will be reading her novel Cezanne’s Quarry, and I am particularly excited to read her new one, The Blood of Lorraine; the historical character in this one is a little known French psychiatrist and the theme of identity, an obsession of mine in both my writing and reading, plays out along with the mystery of an infant’s murder. Her panel was called Let’s Pretend We’re Strangers, but I couldn’t. I had to take a few minutes to tell Barbara what kind of role she had played in my very real life. I have no doubt that she has had a profound influence on many, many students and faculty as well. Seeing her again reminded me that as teachers we really can’t always be aware of the impact we have on students, especially those uncertain and vulnerable ones. And so it’s important to be as genuine and generous as possible with all of them. Mentoring is often a conscious act on the mentor's part, but just as often, I think, it happens by example and engagement. And I was delighted to see that Barbara had lost none of her energy over the years. At one point, she got up and went next door to ask the Locusts to turn their mikes down!

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  • E Victoria Flynn

    Karrie beat me to it. Thanks for this, Jane.

  • Jane Hammons

    Thanks for reading this and getting teary-eyed :)

  • Karrie Higgins

    Honestly, this brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for bringing back memories of my favorite teachers and inspiring me as a teacher, too.