Our class read Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory the second week. Most of the chapters were published serially in the New Yorker; the volume is considered by many to be one of the best autobiographies written. Regardless, when I ask students for their response to the text, Meredith declares Nabokov an aristocratic prig. Paige says she feels guilty for falling asleep near the section where Nabokov explains his avid reading habits due to his insomnia. Katie, who has not missed class since the day she stayed with her boyfriend at the hospital, is still anxious to make up her absence. She mentions several descriptions she loved.
Mano says he’ll never look at butterflies the same way again. He doesn’t even think he’s ever looked at a butterfly.
In the remaining two weeks of the block, I do my best to make Nabokov’s books accessible. I draw diagrams on the board to clarify the different narrative threads of Pale Fire. I explain the meanings of foreign words in The Gift, and I walk through passages of Pnin step by step to show how Nabokov builds tension. I work to bridge knowledge gaps in any way I can often making ranch analogies. Literature is like a fine horse, I tell them. A child can ride any horse and love it, but it’s not until a cowgirl is older and has ridden many horses that she will appreciate a really fine one.
My students respond to the difficult material heroically. There are times I’m surprised by their inability to grasp the plot, but more often I’m amazed by their tenacity to struggle through Nabokov’s dense language and complex narrative structures. When I see Bob and his wife at the grocery store, she tells me she hasn’t seen him all block because all he does is read. Meredith seems a little grimmer each day but continues to participate actively. Mano wants to know how “much” pages there are left.
Yet they all keep reading. No one drops.
I myself was an underprepared college student. I did not know how to write an essay and most certainly had never heard of Nabokov. I sympathize with Mano especially. While getting my MA, my thesis director told me my grammar and punctuation were as bad as a freshman’s. Probably, they were. I bought a grammar book and sat down and taught myself.
Dakota has my heart as well. In rodeo, she excels at breakaway roping. On a good day, she catches the calf a few yards into the arena, and when the loop settles around the calf’s neck, she throws both hands up in the air. This means “time” or “stop the clock.” The fastest cowgirl wins. In class I’ve noticed her finish an assignment or answer a question and then throw her hands up in the air: “I’ve caught my calf.” This celebratory gesture makes me laugh.
One evening my husband and I go to a restaurant where Katie waits tables. She serves us chicken fajitas with a quick step and checks on us every few minutes. As we pay for our ticket at the bar, she pulls over a young man in a Ducks Unlimited cap. “See,” she says and holds up his hand, index finger wrapped in a grungy bandage. “This is what I missed class for.” The young man blushes and pulls away his hand, but I feel honored she’s so anxious to please me.
Six years ago when my husband suggested we move back to Montana, I was reluctant. On the weekends in New York, we went to readings, art shows and museums. I cherished visiting a new ethnic restaurant every Saturday, attending a Russian-speaking church and teaching ESL to a group of Japanese exchange students. I agreed to move to Bozeman when Kreg obtained a good position at a leading architecture firm. I hoped to write fulltime.
When the economy crashed, I applied for the position in the English Department at Western. “I hope my students’ attitudes are better than mine,” I told Kreg.
They are. Much better.
Their enthusiasm has been catching. Without realizing it, I had grown out of a cowgirl and into a snob. It’s been a good learning experience for me to teach at Western. Perhaps the thing I’ve learned the most is how much perspective my students have to offer me.
For the last day of class, we meet off campus. Friends of mine agree to loan their house with its big screen TV for the afternoon. I plan a blini party—Russian crepes—and to show the film The Luzhin Defense, based on a Nabokov novel. Kreg and I arrive early to prepare. The house has an open floor plan with the kitchen and living room next to each other, and there’s enough sofa and chair space for my students. Kreg makes the batter for the blini, and I cue up the movie.
Meredith shows up twenty minutes early, Mano ten minutes late. Everyone puts their contributions for filling the blinis—Nutella, powdered sugar, preserves, ham, cheese and fresh fruit—on the counter. Kreg cooks the thin pancakes, and I ask my students to make a final entry in their journals. “Give me feedback on how this class went for you,” I tell them. When they’re done writing, they load their plates with hot blini and start the movie.
I sit at the kitchen table with their journals piled around me and read through them. I’m not surprised by the gripes and comments about how difficult the books were, the impossibility of pronouncing Russian names, that there should be less reading every night. I am amazed to learn Meredith has recently moved back to Dillon to take care of her blind mother. “I didn’t expect this class to be so involved,” she writes. “I learned a lot, but I still think Nabokov is a prig.” Paige tells me she was nervous about taking the class because she’d enjoyed several close relationships with other professors and didn’t want her last English class to be bad, but she was surprised by how much she enjoyed it.
Bob: “Most American writers are scared… Some of us as students cannot afford the big trip to Europe and probably will never leave the US but reading these books gives us a sense of ‘outside the box’ like thinking we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The movie finishes and my students help me clean. Though I’ve been teaching for seven years, these final moments of a class still make me emotional. Some students gather napkins and straighten couch cushions. Paige and Dakota wash dishes. Bob screws the lids back on the jars of jam and Nutella. Mano throws the paper plates in the garbage, and Katie wipes the countertops. I’m going to miss these cowboys.
When we get everything cleaned, I tell them I’ve enjoyed teaching this class and am proud of their work.
“What are you teaching next semester?” Mano asks. “I want to take those classes.”
I laugh and tell him Russian Literature and Literature in Translation. I see a couple shake their heads at Mano as if he’s crazy. I don’t blame them, but I hope to see them again anyway.
Dakota’s journal: “This is a very good required class, especially for somewhere as small and sheltered as Dillon. Outside, big-world events are easy to forget or ignore in such a sheltered place. Not so when the books you are reading transport you farther than then yellow plains and Wednesday night bar fights.”
This is the reason I will continue to teach Nabokov to cowgirls—and to anyone who enters my classroom. I might even dig out my cowboy boots and sit on the back porch with a cold one as I prep for next semester.
Return tomorrow for the next installment of “Teaching Nabokov to Cowgirls.”
Dr. Danielle Jones teaches writing and literature at the University of Montana Western. She has a Ph.D in Poetry from SUNY-Albany and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. For the 2012-2013 academic year, she has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Grant to Russia, where she will teach literature and work on her memoir, Mother Russia, Father Time.