I met Lowrly Pei my sophomore year of college when I signed up for his nonfiction writing course. There were about 10-12 students in the class and each week Lowry would choose someone’s work to read out loud and then we’d all discuss the work in painstaking detail. I remember the first time my work was chosen, I made myself sick I was so nervous. But Lowry was always kind, always quick to point out the specks of gold in the rock. He made me feel like a writer. When he handed back our work, it was often accompanied by a page or more of single-spaced comments. I would pour over those comments, so grateful to have a reader. So grateful to have a listener. By the end of the semester, I was making small notes at the top of my papers, “Please don’t share in class.” Because the other amazing thing Lowry had done was allow me to create a lifeline with my words. Sophomore year was a difficult one for me. So difficult, I still don’t talk about it. And yet I had a safe place to share my secret, parallel life. Silently. With Lowry.
I continued to keep in touch with Lowry throughout my years at Simmons and on into graduate school. He was my master’s thesis mentor (I wrote my first YA novel instead of a thesis), and he guided me through the obvious mistakes new writers make with patience and steady encouragement. I also took a course with him called Teaching Writing, which required me to be a teaching assistant in a writing course similar to the one I’d taken with him years earlier. In our weekly graduate seminars, we’d talk about how the classes were going and I joked with Lowry about what a terrible student I must have been, sharing secrets I never should have burdened him with. He just laughed, and told me I wasn’t the first. He said he often walked down the busy halls of students and thought, “Every one of them has a story. Every one of them has a secret.” That same day, I remember stepping out into the hall and watching all the young women making their way from one class to another. What’s your story? I thought, as each one passed. And I swear I could almost feel those silent secrets hitting my chest like a fist.
I was so lucky to have Lowry to share my own story with. And later, my fiction, drawn from pain and joy—experienced, witnessed, and imagined. Even after I graduated, it was Lowry I sent my first drafts to for approval. Lowry whose long, detailed and honest letters I cherished and believed in. In the fifteen years since my graduation, I’m sure Lowry has mentored many, many other quiet Jo’s, slowly daring to put secrets on paper, desperate to get those words out, if only silently, from student to teacher. Who slowly learned how to find beauty in the ugly. To turn truth to lies and back again, so that some day, at long last, their words could find their way to strangers who have their own stories to tell.
Thank you, Lowry, for listening.