In preparation for my profile on a first year English major (Class of 2020—remarkable), I scoured past blog posts for inspiration and was nothing short of jarred when I came upon the December 9, 2013 “Featuring First Years,” which, to the surprise of my ever-roaming memory, popped up with a picture of myself clad in freshman enthusiasm. And I began to think about what it means to have an artifact of any form that marks the beginning of our academic relationship with literature. Perhaps, for both my peers who have already graduated and who are graduating with me, there is some blush-inducing evidence of a strange, naïve, and wonder-full start to our time in the English department at the University of Portland.
What a privilege, then, it was to sit down with Cameron Beasley, Secondary Education and English double major from Mountain View, CA, and bear witness, if only fragmentary, to her very own beginning.
When Cameron arrived at the Commons, I immediately took note of how her every movement was bursting with that tell-tale excitement that is considered young and, therefore, trite, but is in actuality one of the most wholehearted ways to move through the world. We greeted each other warmly and quickly settled into our shared space.
“So, I’ve got to ask the classic question—why did you decide to become an English major?” I inquired, pen in hand.
“My original plan was to do Secondary Education and I was told that I could do a Religious Studies endorsement, and then when I got here, they were like, ‘Well, we don’t have a Religious Studies endorsement!’ So I switched over to English because I’d always wanted to teach, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do religion or English, and, so, I was like, ‘All right, I can do English.’ So, as a Secondary Education major you have to double major, and I decided to go into English just because my English teachers have always had a big impact on me, and I wanted to be able to have that kind of impact,” Cameron replied.
At this point my curiosity piqued even more because it always seems like English majors have distinct memories of the high school English teacher(s) who helped them love literature. Consequently, I asked Cameron to be a little more specific about the “big impact” her English teachers had always had on her:
“Okay, so my freshman year English teacher always understood that our mental health was more important than any assignment or essay that we could turn in. So my freshman year in high school when I was having a lot of adaptation issues when it came to getting used to high school, she always understood that and was like, ‘Don’t worry if you need an extra day for the essay,’ and it was just that focus on the student rather than the academia that was really big for me.” Cameron went on to describe her English teachers from the rest of her years in high school: her sophomore English teacher who had a history with her mother and who Cameron was able to bond with outside of class, her junior year English teacher who gave Cameron a love of the British novels they read, and her senior year English teacher who was realistic about his student’s priorities and tried to make class fun for them despite their restlessness. All in all, Cameron’s experience with her high school English teachers made her decision to pursue an English endorsement easy. Each of them are “incredible people and incredible educators” who help her visualize who she can be later in her life.
Naturally, as an almost-Americanist, I observed the way Cameron’s hands collected a visible ardor when she mentioned her experience with British literature and asked a follow-up question about it. Cameron thoughtfully recalled that her class had read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that year, which was “super fun”: “For me, it’s any kind of novel that is in a specific time period but you can take and apply to modern society. And that’s why I want to be an English teacher—you can take something that’s from such a strict time period but then be able to apply it to what’s in the world today, especially since everyone brings their own interpretations when they’re reading.” At this I nodded—Yes!—Cameron is in tune with the empathetic edge of literature, and there is hope for her to be an Americanist after all.
“Cool!” I responded, hyped to be listening to Cameron. “Kind of related question: do you have any writers or books that you would consider especially influential to you? Maybe not necessarily as an English major but on a more daily level?”
“I have book of Emily Dickinson poetry just sitting in my room that I refer to every once in a while just because a lot of her poetry addresses so much human emotion and it’s kind of cool to immerse yourself in. And then, not necessarily a published author, but my brother was a film major in college, and the way he writes has just been so cool to me. He’ll send me little poems and little things that he writes.”
Cameron’s brother, who is four years older than her, is someone she has identified with her whole life despite the fact that he’s always been the “more creative person.” “He allows me to push myself into that creativity,” Cameron noted, a clear peace settling over her shoulders. Cameron and her brother continue to exchange writing, whether creative or critical, and even had the opportunity to sit with each other over coffee during Fall Break. She was doing her psychology homework while he wrote poetry, and Cameron was amazed by the detail he was able to pick up in the conversations happening around them. “Watching his process inspires mine,” she said.
Believe it or not, this gets more tender—Cameron’s brother has been known to leave books under her pillow, the most recent gift being Rupi Kaur’s milk & honey.
“He marked in the top corners the poems he liked, and, while I read, I marked the bottom corners of the poems I liked,” Cameron shared.
These intimate details of Cameron’s experience with literature were followed by stories of her climbing up the family apricot tree to read Laura Ingalls Wilder and of an angsty middle school split from such literary preoccupations, all of which make me believe that Cameron’s profile is as much a chronicle of her return as it is a chronicle of her beginning. What I relearned from talking with her is how much a feeling-thing studying literature is—we do it for and alongside each other.
So perhaps now is as good a time as any to retreat into those blush-inducing artifacts, those evidences of our ordinary devotions to literature. It is always a privilege to bear witness, however fragmentary, to the ways we have grown and continue to grow.
Best wishes to Cameron and all first year English majors! We are so excited you are here.