I read with both admiration and sadness Wesleyan magazine’s article on the life and recent death of Professor Christina Crosby, A Hard Life, Well Lived. For reasons I’ll explain, I had no idea she was at the school despite having greatly admired her as an undergraduate at Wesleyan in the 1980s.
I’ve maintained my connection with the University mostly through a few extraordinary teachers and friends. Christina would have been one of the professors I’d have made the effort to see and to thank for her influence and her inspiration. About the time of my graduation, however, I was told that she had left to teach at Brown. I had loved her classes and it struck me as a great loss for the school.
I was fortunate enough to have Christina as a professor twice, the first time in a 19th century literature class. I didn’t complete the course. I withdrew from Wesleyan during the semester due to physical illness and emotional fatigue including the ongoing strain of needing to “come out.” That was the winter of 1983. Returning to school in September, I was relieved to find she was teaching a class on women writers that featured several of the same authors and titles I missed when I withdrew the prior term. This class turned out to be one of the highlights of my Wesleyan studies.
Women Writers was one of the more ambitious courses I took in college because of the demand of reading one classic book per week. I’ve never been a fast reader, and this meant I’d have to devote a large part of my days to reading just to keep up with the syllabus. But the timing was fortunate as several of my closest friends were away that year and the fall was especially lonely. Reading became a window into a fascinating series of worlds created by a brilliant group of authors. Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and Virginia Woolf made up the classics, and Maxine Hong Kingston along with Marilynne Robinson were two of the contemporary writers. Each class was a doorway to a new understanding of the books we read, and it was both exciting and gratifying to be there.
Christina was passionate, serious, and genuinely funny. She communicated just how important these works of literature were to her and how very much she wanted us, invited us, to see why. Perhaps the best—and most humbling—moment was when we came to class to begin Orlando. It was about nine weeks into the semester. I had started the book and it definitely seemed odd, but I’d never read Virginia Woolf so what did I know? Christina was asking us questions and the whole class was failing to come up with answers. She finally began reading the dedication aloud and, after a few sentences, stopped and said: “Guys, this is supposed to be funny!” She read a few more lines and we began to laugh. Suddenly the whole thing was hilarious.
To have a teacher who loves her subject of study so much that she can’t help but convey that love to her class is the greatest good fortune for any student. This is how I experienced Christina Crosby. In addition, she made me feel like an equal whenever I spoke with her, which was usually at the end of class when several of us would wait to ask a question or eagerly share a response to the book of the week. Beyond this, she taught me to be wary of my expectations and prejudices. As a class, we hadn’t dared to laugh until she gave us a slightly exasperated scolding and, at the same time, permission to do so. But she didn’t do this to place herself as the authority; she did it to wake us up, to help us learn to trust ourselves and to not take literature (or life) so seriously that we’d forget to laugh.
With love and thanks to Christina for her insight, kindness, and inspiration,
Douglas Oxenhorn ’84
Belleville, New Jersey