Yesterday, I read an email that sucked (me into the real world). I was sad to learn that Ann Sullivan had died.
Now, most of you didn't know Ann. I'll admit I didn't know her well, but somehow that didn't really seem to matter with her. She was one of those rare people that you meet and instantly feel comfortable with, and trust extremely introverted me, that's very hard to come by. Admittedly, we never discuss anything more than relatively superficial topics, but you had the feeling when talking to her that she would be approachable if you ever had anything dire and personal to discuss. I never did, but it was comforting to know there was someone around if you did.
Having a maternal soul around was important because I never saw Ann in familiar surroundings. I met her while I was in grad school at Hollins in Virginia. The MA (and now MFA) in children's lit at Hollins is a low residency program where the students only attend six weeks in the summer. It makes for an intense six weeks of eating, sleeping and breathing kiddie lit, but it’s also not home. No matter the friendships you make, it’s a revolving door of students coming and going each year, and it is only six weeks long.
Ann was a gifted storyteller, and that was the first thing anyone would tell you if they mentioned her. "Have you met Ann yet?" they'd ask me my first year. "She's the fantastic storyteller." Ann was the artist in residence the year before I started and taught a storytelling course my second year. She was also the wife of Chip, my SF professor I had my first year, so she was around even then. In fact, even the one year I was there that neither of them taught they still came one weekend for our student run conference. Although I never had her for a class - I took creative writing the year she taught - I enjoyed her various demonstrations and the storytelling skills she coaxed out of even her shyest students. And there was something omnipresent about the Sullivans. Even when they weren’t physically around, they still came up constantly in conversation. And, admit it guys, they were the main reason any of us went to the IAFA conference. Sure we mainly went because IAFA (Intl. Assoc. for the Fantastic in the Arts) was Chip’s baby and the Assoc. is nice to grad students, but it was also always nice to know Ann would be there as well. When the never-ending panels became too overwhelming, you could always go out the pool and chat about non-fantastic related literature with her. She was always a restful interlude, and she could always be counted on for soothing nerves before a presentation.
So, to end this little post dedicated to Ann, I thought I’d end with a story. It’s not a very good story. It’s lacking in plot, character development, hidden symbolism, and the like. For that matter, it’s probably not more than an anecdote, but in the hands of a master storyteller like Ann, you would never have noticed.
The Good Witch of the ICFA
Once upon a time four girls decided to travel to a conference. It was a conference in a large palace within driving distance of the sea, and the four girls had to travel far to get there. One by one the first thee girls arrived. They found their room and checked in with the conference. They found the panels they were hosting or the sessions where their papers would be presented. Satisfied that all was well, the three girls decided to swim in the pool.
Finally, later than the rest, the youngest girl arrived. She stared around the large palace looking a little lost, for though the others had been before, this conference was the largest gathering of academics she had ever seen. Everyway she looked there were tenured men and women mingling in the bar and starving graduate students carrying boxes of their dissertation research. The youngest girl stood staring, unsure of where to go. Should she try to find her roommates? They hadn’t been in the room when the front desk called. Should she check-in? But she didn’t know where. The palace had many floors. The conference check-in desk could be on any one of them.
The youngest girl sank onto the top of her roller suitcase that had barely been small enough to qualify as checked luggage. Her lower lip began to quiver, and her eyes began to well up. She cursed the evil, scholarly wizard who had enchanted her into thinking that coming to the conference would be a good idea. Clearly, she would never belong in such a magnificent bastion of intelligence.
Just as she was about to leave, a good witch appeared in front of the youngest girl.
“Oh, hello, Madeline,” the good witch said, giving the youngest girl a hug. “Are you just now getting here? Alaine, Sonia, and Amie are out by the pool if you’re looking for them.”
The youngest girl broke into a huge smile. “Thanks, Ann,” she said. “I didn’t know where to look.”
The good witch led the youngest girl to the other three. The others were pleased to see her, for they had wondered at her tardiness. The good witch left the four to catch up, but only after leaving a magic talisman that would allow the girls to visit the conference suite on the sacred eleventh floor.
The four girls enjoyed the conference, only parting company to attend different sessions. The good witch continued to run into them both at the pool and at other conference activities. All left in good spirits with the youngest girl promising to attend again the next year. She did, and the conference became a bit of a reunion with the good witch and the not-so-evil, scholarly wizard presiding over them all. The four girls became famous throughout the conference for the cogent arguments and the brilliant articles they routinely published in the most prestigious journal of the field, JFA. They all lived happily ever after.
All right, so this story isn’t strictly true, or for that matter based on any actual event. But it could have happened. And it made for an okay story, and I think that’s all Ann would have asked.