Then there is the tsunami of flowers, donations, pots of casserole, plus the cards and phone calls (all ranging from the shallowest to the deeply felt). There was what seemed to be a State Park forest of trees planted in Dad’s name in places we’d never heard of, and, if you can believe it, even a small, terribly special collection of sympathy emails.
Ten days after the funeral, the food and cards and letters and trees being planted in Wherever-a-stan-erica-ville all stopped coming. Fruit baskets began to rot. Homemade borsht went off in the refrigerator. The mail returned to its normal flow of bills and unsolicited advertisements. The mailbox would open and all one could hear was the crushing silence of other people moving on.
But then came the letter from Lady Chu.
Judy Chu to be precise, for that was her real name. Well into my senior year at Interlochen I was presented with a problem—I needed another liberal arts credit in order to graduate with highest academic honors, and as a fully fledged perfectionist I wasn’t about to let three intense acting scenes, a budding secret romance, Shakespeare’s wordiest heroine or a father with cancer stand in my way. I reported to the Admissions office to comb through my options.
The options were sparse.
“What about Psychological Lit?” I asked the counselor, Kelly.
“Full” she replied.
“You already took it” she said, narrowing her eyes at me, “last year…”
“What is available?” I huffed, arms flinging upward.
“British Literature” Kelly said, smiling broadly at my predicament.
The world was ending.
British literature, I winced, are you kidding me? I saw weeks of quippy Austen and dreary Brontë passages ahead of me. I couldn’t cope. I buried my head in my hands like a petulant child and realized this was not only my fate but my fault.
“Who teaches it?” I inquired, hoping the answer would improve things—perhaps my favorite teachers taught it and I simply didn’t know it!
“...Who on earth is Judy Chu?”
Judy Chu, as it happened, was a young, energetic, year-long adjunct teacher from Southern California, brought in for a liberal arts teacher on sabbatical.
“Apparently the students really loved her first semester,” Kelly explained, “and apparently her classes are very exciting. Enrollment is light because so many of you want to take the ‘greatest hits’ before you graduate— but you are a bit late to the party. Obviously.”
“Obviously” I droned.
I signed up and left the admissions office in a mood, reporting to third-period British Lit the following morning, to a class of eight other people.
Judy Chu began with a bright smile, and by asking each of us why we had enrolled in British Literature. Dear God, I thought, not wanting to admit the truth, and I think I squeezed past the issue by explaining that fate had brought me here.
But fate had brought me to Judy Chu. Her class became the most important literary experience of my life.
This thoughtful young teacher was tough but fair, with complex weekly handouts, and uncompromising standards for grammar, essay construction and literary criticism. Plus, I can honestly say she taught me everything I’ve nearly forgotten about punctuation, verb tenses and second person narrative.
But nothing will ever expunge the greatest lesson and gift she gave me—Judy Chu taught me how to read, and perhaps more crucially, why. Lady Chu (which I named her myself, for she is a lady first, and a teacher second if you ask me and you are) was bibliophilic magic. She handed you a book and gave you special incantations required step inside the pages— like the children in Mary Poppins jumping inside Bert’s sidewalk chalk painting. That final semester of High School at Interlochen was just the beginning.
When she assigned Howards End, she blew my literary mind. The copy still sits proudly on my bookshelf adorned with well-thumbed pages, color-coded highlighting, and adorable teenaged margin notes (such as “Love is a ‘He’?” and “when you show your homeland to a foreigner how do you show it all?” and “Oh… more LIFE!” and, of course, “Is love the only way to connect?”). I can recall how much I loved it more with every turning page! The deeply-feeling Narrator, the poetry in the slightest of prose, the humanity, and of course, my beloved kindred spirit; Howards End’s heroine Margaret Schlegel. With every word Margaret uttered my heart leapt in recognition, for Margaret Schlegel lived in me. I didn’t dare to hope Judy Chu could see it too.
For Judy Chu, I think Interlochen must have been a marvel— a place of such artistic energy and possibility. She seemed inspired, impressed by and deeply cared about her students which was evident when I saw her in the audience of As You Like It. She met my Mom and Dad and shook their hands, exchanged smiles.
At the end of the year, Judy Chu bid Interlochen farewell, but not before leaving our tiny class with one final handout. The simple sheet of white paper quoted Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” and T.H White’s Merlin (beckoning us to “learn”) on one side, a personalized note to every one of us on the other. I still have this piece of paper, for last on the list was my name with a very simple message:
Al: You are Margaret Schlegel to me.
I stood outside in clothing I had worn for days. Beside the mailbox, in a light rain spitting down from a sheet-white sky I extricated a letter. A small envelope about the size of my hand with the mark of a black and red Chinese dragon traveling from back to front. I recognized the small, perfectly neat handwriting immediately.
I know that you, with your strong, strong heart, shall see through pain to hope and prosper.
I held the letter to my heart. It said so little, and meant so much.
I wrote back to say so. It would be the first of a lifetime of letters.
Letters to and from Judy Chu to every single address I would ever have in my adult life.
 I must say: I owe my love of Russian literature as well as my understanding of Objective correlative to Jean Gaede, and my love of words themselves to Howard Hintze.
 She still does.
|ten years later at our annual "Only Connect" dinner at the address I now know by heart.|