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October 9, 2017

The Life-changing Key to Rebecca

Lives, careers, and friendships can be altered forever by a chance event.

The beginning of my senior year, I transferred to the University of Redlands (U of R), a well-respected private school in southern California. Previously I had attended a college in the southeast but, as tuition rose and my scholarship remained fixed, I was unable to continue. The U of R helped me apply for a Federal financial aid program called BEOG (known as Pell Grants today). While U of R was an expensive school, I was given grants and campus employment that enabled me to complete my degree.

I had been majoring in Philosophy, but I had also been taking every writing course I could possibly squeeze into my schedule. As a result, my academic adviser told me the shortest (and therefore cheapest) path to graduation would be a Communications degree with a Creative Writing concentration. I shrugged and said “OK.” So we worked out a curriculum that included this class:

English Literature and Language #100, Analysis of Literature. An intensive study of the principles and methods of literary analysis, and their application to the criticism of literary works. Recommended for all students as a basic introduction to literary criticism. Jelliffe.

I soon learned that "Jelliffe" was Dr. Rebecca Rio-Jelliffe, who had earned a reputation among my fellow students. She was an intense, petite woman of middle years who had survived the Japanese occupation of the Philippines to become a long-tenured professor. She had a formidable reputation for tough classwork, a stern demeanor, and iron-fisted grading.

I can remember her self introduction in my first day of Analysis of Literature. “Hello class. I’m Rebecca Rio-Jelliffe. You can call me Rebecca, you can call me Rio, or you can call me Jelliffe.” (While she was a Fulbright Scholar with a Ph.D. from University of California Berkeley, I never heard her use the title “Dr.”)

She launched into a lecture, and in short order I could feel my brain twisting and stretching to follow her rapid lines of thought, which shifted from theory to application and theory again. Soon, we received our first writing assignment. I don't recall the subject, but I remember with clarity seeing my graded paper. A “C” was neatly printed on the first page.

A “C.”

I’d excelled in every English class I’d ever taken. My essays were covered with paeans of praise and triple-underscored “A’s.” I was called upon to read my essays and creative writing works aloud, so my fellow students could marvel at their master’s work. At spelling bees, I walked off the stage as my opponents stumbled feebly through the smoking rubble of obscure vocabulary.

It was my house. And nobody had ever given me a “C” in my house.

After class I was invited to a 1:1 with Dr. Jelliffe. As I sat, humbled, in her office, she was primly seated across from me, hands clasped, expression serene. After a brief greeting, she launched into a speech about how important it was that third-party sources be clearly referenced in every essay, so the professor could discern the student’s thoughts and analytical product.

“This is why,” she went on to say, “you received no grade for your paper.”

Dumbfounded, I drew out my paper and looked at it again. The “C” glared back with unwinking intensity.

“But I did get a grade.” She tensed immediately. “It’s not a good one, but it’s a grade.”

“May I see that?” she asked politely, through clenched teeth.

As she looked at my paper, her manner changed in an instant. She shook, she flapped her hands, inhaled deeply, and said, “I misremembered! I misremembered! I'm terribly sorry! I misremembered!”

The paper with no grade belonged to someone else. (I suspected it was another bearded chap in the same class.) Once her composure was regained, my “C” was acknowledged, and I was given suggestions for improving my work. And so my academic career continued.

It was never again the same. No matter how stern she appeared in class, how demanding her assignments, or rigorous her grading, I had seen the true Rebecca, for a moment, unlocked. With her humanity exposed, I recognized her as a warm, brilliant, inspiring, and human person who cared deeply for her students, and was herself striving towards perfection.

Through her rigorous teaching, she uplifted my thinking, my writing, my career, and my heart.

Och Tamale, Rebecca.

And who has so inspired you?

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