He was always late. A guy in my freshman composition class joked that Dr. Richard Cornelius was on “Cornelius time,” which inevitably ran five minutes behind our standard student time. Because he was a full professor, though, we were duty bound to wait for a full fifteen minutes before “absentee teacher” was a legitimate excuse for leaving.
He always arrived.
Probably some of my classmates were disappointed. Dr. Cornelius had a reputation for being a tough professor, and not everyone enjoyed his English classes. Some dreaded them. A few flunked.
I, as a third generation student at the college, had entered his Introduction to Literature class with different expectations. My grandfather and grandmother had known him during their time at the college, as had my father and uncle. My mother, an English major, had regaled me with stories of her college days, and Dr. Cornelius had been her favorite professor.
Once, some students had lured a dog into a senior level English class. Midway through the class period, the dog strolled in and sat down. Dr. Cornelius paused. “It seems we have a new student today,” he said, and then returned to his lecture as if having a large dog in a literature class was quite common. My mother swears that my father was behind the prank; my father swears that he had nothing to do with it. But from the smirk that accompanies the denial, I think I know who to believe.
I had met the unflappable professor as a child. In my mind, I had expected he’d look like Dr. Cornelius from Prince Caspian: dwarfish dimensions; a long, white beard; a pipe to be smoked during thoughtful moments; and wire-rimmed glasses that he’d peer over as he imparted wisdom, perhaps polishing them with a white handkerchief for extra flourish.
I was so disappointed. Unlike my stout, short dwarf, he was tall and thin. He was clean-shaven, no trace of a white beard on his chin. No pipe. At least I’d gotten the glasses right.
He deserved his tough-teacher reputation. He was a stickler for details. (My ex-boyfriend claimed that when he protested a deduction on a paper for “too-wide margins,” Dr. Cornelius pulled out a ruler and measured the margin width. My ex didn’t say who was right.)
He knew Harbrace Handbook of English like he knew the Bible: chapter and verse ready on the tongue, concordance and maps organized in the brain, the lessons learned by heart.
When he graded our papers, he didn’t tell us exactly what we did wrong; he listed the number of the Harbrace section about our mistake. We had to search for the mistake and correct it, write a detailed list of mistakes, and show the corrected paper to him. Grammar, mechanics, punctuation, diction, effectiveness: Harbrace had a rule about all of them, and Dr. Cornelius made certain we knew all of them. Or, even better, that we knew how to apply the rules to our own writing.
In other words, if grammar and punctuation mistakes linger in my writing, don’t blame Dr. Cornelius. He tried.
His daily assignments were long. For a typical intro to lit assignment, we read a short story, then listed and analyzed:
- the major facts of the story,
- the theme,
- the development of the plot,
- the major characters,
- the point of view (defending our choice if necessary),
- the physical setting and atmosphere,
- miscellaneous items (such as allusions, imagery, symbolism, irony, etc.),
- the tone,
- the credibility of the story and its illusion of reality (listing both pros and cons), and
- the meaning (ideas, applications, universal meanings).
Did I mention that this was a daily assignment? And that we had one short story for each class? And that class met three times a week?
But did I also mention that his extra credit was generous? Read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, answer a question or two, and receive ten points to apply to that daily assignment. We only had to do two of the three assignments for the week. But if we did all three, he dropped the lowest score. Hmm. Tell me again how students flunked his classes?
I’ve kept every assignment and handout from this class. They were that useful.
Last week, after I heard about his death in August, I reread some of his comments on my papers and smiled. “Good but wordy” was a constant refrain sung in red ink in the margin. On one daily assignment, he wrote, “Excellent ideas (. . .) a plethora of verbiage. Try to be more concise. Have faith in your scholarship.” On another, he wrote, “Thanks for caring enough to do excellent work.”
Some students dreaded his classes; the red ink, they complained, looked like blood.
That baffled me. How could they feel revulsion at the red words spewed across the page? It meant he cared enough to examine those details—the stray commas, the awkward wordings, the misplaced modifiers—and help us see the weaknesses and strengths of our writing. To me, there was nothing worse than a perfect score given without comment.
Maybe we got along because we were so much alike. Perfectionistic. Detail-oriented. Driven.
After I dropped out of that school to seek treatment for anorexia, he wrote me a long letter. He apologized for typing it— “you know how poor my handwriting is”—and expressed his heartfelt desire for my recovery. He also apologized for any role he might’ve played in my increasingly driven and perfectionistic outlook on life. He shared a bit about how his own perfectionism had hurt him and his relationships, and urged me to slow down, enjoy life, and receive God’s love and grace.
When he retired, he had taught at Bryan College for forty-eight years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. But for as long as I live, I will remember Dr. Cornelius: his dedication to his work, his dry sense of humor, his encouragement to me.
So here’s to you, sir. May you enjoy the eternal rest of our savior. I will see you again.