My husband and I met in Literary Theory 393, taught by one of the most intelligent women I have ever met: Dr. Cheryl Hindrichs.
Cheryl’s intellect was intimidating. I had already taken her Intro to Literary Theory Class 275 and knew how demanding her courses were when I signed up for 393. It wasn’t just the amount of work she expected from us students; it’s that she expected us to think. Reading the dozens of pages of dense literary theory she assigned wasn’t sufficient. She expected us to have actually thought about the text before we entered the classroom and have an argument to present. We were expected to be thinkers and be able to back up our thoughts both in our written assignments and verbally.
And boy howdy if you skipped the reading assignment. All Cheryl had to do was look at you in her particular way and you never did it again . . . or dropped the class immediately, knowing you couldn’t keep up with this force of a woman. At the same time, little else compared in my studies to the look Cheryl gave when one of us students landed a succinct point. She wasn’t one to praise loudly or extensively, but we knew when we had done well.
While I attended a state school, Boise State University, Cheryl’s class felt like sitting in an intimate course at Harvard. She was that good and demanded that much of us, both as intellectuals and students. When she spoke, everyone listened. Immediately.
One class I’ll never forget: a student, in a moment of vulnerability, shared with us that she had experienced suicidal ideation. She was mostly on the other side of it, but the feeling was raw and it was obvious that this student was in deep pain. She spoke openly and specifically—and honestly made all of the students in the room, me included, uncomfortable at the rawness and detailed sharing of what seemed to be very private thoughts and experiences. We were all in our early twenties, after all, and had no clue how to respond to something like this.
When she was done, everyone looked at Cheryl. What in the world would she say? I wondered.
Cheryl thought for a moment and then said, “That was incredibly brave of you to share.”
I don’t remember what she said after that, but I do remember being in awe at how it was exactly the right thing. The student visibly relaxed, the space felt safe, and we were eventually directed back to our lit theory discussion without any awkwardness whatsoever.
Over time, Cheryl became something of a mentor to me, as she did to many students. I’m not sure if she ever had a particular fondness toward me, but I did for her. I would take advantage of her office hours whenever I could, finding an excuse to ask a question about the text just to listen to her thoughts and share my own. I’d knock on her open door in the hallways of the Boise State English Department and ask, “Dr. Hindrichs? Is this an OK time?”
She always said yes, and she always generously sat and talked for however long I needed to talk.
At the same time, I was falling in love with my now-husband. After her class, we’d go to Starbucks or grab Vietnamese food (our first real date!) or head to the library or student union building to study. We secretly dated for a few weeks before tentatively sitting next to each other in class, essentially going “public” with our dating. We thought it would be a huge deal . . . but as you’re probably guessing, no one cared. Though I thought I saw a twinkle in Cheryl’s eye.
Cheryl’s classes inspired me to become interested in feminist theory. To recognize myself as an intellectual. To love literary criticism, which as anyone who has ever studied it knows, requires a special depth of nerdiness.
My favorite memory of Cheryl, though, is at the rec center. I went there regularly to work out and sometimes saw Cheryl on a stair stepper, reading a thick literary theory essay book.
Now, I need to really make this point: these books are dense. Not only are they huge—many hundreds of thin pages, as thick as a large hamburger—but the text is small and the essays are written at a level of English that most of us will never be able to reproduce. Big words, layered meaning, intricate thoughts woven carefully throughout the essays. Personally, I needed complete focus to read these essays, often rereading the same paragraphs and sentences over and over to fully understand them. I’d underline important parts of the text and take notes and summarize my thoughts in writing to ensure I actually got it.
But there Cheryl was, working out and casually reading essays that I needed complete silence and ample time to process. I realized then that while I admired her, I could never quite be like her. She was a rare intellectual giant, and as smart as I was and am, I knew I couldn’t reach her level.
In Cheryl’s 393 class, our final project was a literary theory paper. I knew she was going to be tough in grading these, as we were expected to not only weave in all we’d learned reading extensive lit theory essays but to also present our own criticism—our own opinions, backed by research. This is a lot to expect of an undergraduate student, especially within the scope of a semester, but I knew I had to meet her expectations to earn my A in her class.
My work was titled, “A Feminist Approach to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Here’s an excerpt from one paragraph, just to give you a sense of how intense this assignment was:
Applying Mulvey’s approach to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I hold that the novella cultivates scopophilia while creating an almost exclusively male world of darkness. Due to the fact that a literary text provides the reader with more private experience, the scopophilia created in the novel is stronger than that derived from film. The male-dominated existence in the Congo creates a world in which “the spectator [is] fascinated with the image of his like set in an illusion of natural space” (Mulvey 1177). Women are characterized in a way that does not disrupt this patriarchal structure and are present purely “to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 1175). Women exist to define the male characters; their scarcity in the text makes it possible to structure the novel “around a main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” that is represented by a male figure (Mulvey 1176). Women merely foster this dynamic of non-sexual identification with the male protagonist. Conrad establishes an environment in which “the male protagonist is free to command the stage” without hindrance by female counterparts (Mulvey 1177).
This goes on for eight more pages. And it’s all just as dense, detailed, and well-researched as this paragraph. Cheryl expected it and I delivered.
I did earn my A. In both of her classes. When I applied to graduate school, Cheryl wrote one of my recommendation letters.
Years later, when my husband and I moved to Vietnam, we walked by a bar called “Heart of Darkness”—the same name as Conrad’s novel, the main focus of study in Cheryl’s class—and took a picture to share with Cheryl. She became part of our relationship story because we met and fell in love in her class and continued to be part of our story as we dated, got engaged, got married, and had our two beautiful children.
Before I wrap up this tribute to my beloved professor, I need to add one thing. Cheryl never knew this, but when I was in her 275 class, I was undergoing personal trauma; when I entered her 393 class, I was nearing the other side of the trauma and beginning to find my voice and myself again. These were the most painful and beautiful periods of my life, and while Cheryl had no idea of what I was going through, her class, and her as a teacher, helped me remember that I am intelligent and worthy and that my perspective is valid and valuable. She pushed me to be better, to try harder, to not hold back my intelligence.
Knowing Dr. Cheryl Hindrichs was a gift, and I’m grateful to have known her. I learned of her passing this week when my husband shared an announcement from our university. I cried, even though it’s been years since I’ve seen her.
Since I can’t attend the memorial at my alma mater, this small remembrance is my way of honoring her and the impact she had on my life.
Rest in peace, dear professor.