Jeffrey Ford: Tribute to a Mentor

Even students who love writing aren’t thrilled about first-year composition. If not taught well, the classwork and assignments feel routine, like practice with no chance for game time.

I was unusually lucky. On the first day of my Writing and Research class at Brookdale Community College, in walked a guy in a tee shirt and jeans, a hey-dude sense of relaxation all about him. He discussed the course requirements, out of obligation, and soon revealed the true nature of the class. It would be an informal seminar to explore anything worth writing about. After asking us to call him Jeff, he scored more approval by noting that the class was in the English language, and we’d be using all of it (i.e., give profanity its due). In a style aimed right at his audience, he touched upon a variety of topics to get our interest. His discussion of nature according to Plato and Aristotle was right at our level. He noted we’d have a unit on underground comics, featuring the artist R. Crumb.

Like most late adolescents, I knew little about myself and the real world – but I knew I liked this class. Before, I always thought I’d may like teaching. Yet teachers seemed too bookish, showing what the parents and principals expected. I didn’t know what kind of teacher I could be until I met Jeffrey Ford.

At the time I was moping around my hometown, Freehold, an ex-Division I football player who didn’t make it. I was working part-time delivering pizza and attended local clubs to see metal and punk bands, the “mosh pits” offering a chance to vent and capture my lost sport. I didn’t take too well to my parents’ divorce, and wondered if I should forget the college thing and work full-time. Then I finished with an A in Jeff’s class (a surprise, actually). I didn’t realize how that class turned things around for me, until about a year and a half later.

I had began to read and write outside coursework. Along the line I recalled Jeff briefly mentioning he was a writer, all too modestly just to encourage the practice. (His class was one of the rare occasions when one wants to remember everything.) I was thrilled to learn, through my journalism professor my second year, that Jeff had a novel coming out. And I jumped at the chance to interview him for the school newspaper. His novel was speculative science fiction, the kind of thing I was into then. During my talk, he showed what a guy with experience and energy could accomplish. I got the hint that he wrote through the night after teaching all day. As in class, he spoke like a bar-stool raconteur, his Long Island tongue speaking simply with casual insight. I noticed that his book was published by Tor, Ray Bradbury’s publisher at the time. Jeff shared his love for the author’s Dandelion Wine, which had a style that would emerge in Jeff’s 2008 novel, The Shadow Year. He told me I should check out Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the works of Italo Calvino and Philip K. Dick, all of whom became personal passions as I awaited Jeff’s next book.

I later ran into him at a local bar, a rewarding chance to get to know him further. He mentioned that he commuted from outside Philadelphia to Lincroft, preferring the back roads even if they meant two hours each way. The drive allowed him to think fiction by day and write it by night. I loved being in the company of a writer. But what I learned to love more was his place as a teacher-writer, how one could play by the rules and later silently break them. I wasn’t too keen on dropping steady work to go for my dream of writing. But I could go for this.

As the years passed, I kept up on Jeff’s work. I loved its playful sense of fantasy, how it reflected the joys of creation and fashioning language to deliver it. The title of his short story collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, proved that he loved the job and all its demands. To me the book seemed his most enjoyable and revealing work. I appreciated his short commentaries after each piece, though Jeff dismissed them in his charismatic irreverence: “The publisher made me do it.” His approach was a real treat since I was dabbling in fiction, a dream I’ve since let go for film criticism and scholarship. His stories “Creation” and “The Honeyed Knot” would garner appreciation from the most fantasy-wary literary readers. Each left me near tears and chills.

One of the stories made a chilling discovery for me. I learned that Jeff had the misfortune of having Kevin Acquino, convicted child murder and an instigator of Megan’s Law, in his class. The reported crime wracked Jeff, causing in him the unavoidable sense of guilt that any teacher feels in such a situation. In his commentary he noted that the event left him cold to teaching, a job he had loved for years. During the time I had him.

This had to be incorrect. Jeff Ford, hating teaching? It never once showed. In fact, he was more inspiring than most teachers. As a community college professor at Camden County College, I realized the lesson here. A prof’s personal issues need not emerge as long as one stays focused on the job and the deep love for it. Teaching, after all, is performance as much as mentorship. Juggling two jobs – a instructor of 100 writing students and writer – taught Jeff to juggle grief with duty. I keep that in mind whenever things seem to start spilling over.

I sought out Jeff’s early fiction in literary journals, as any fan of a writer does. I learned a great deal about his own mentorship, referenced frequently but rarely discussed. Jeff met the novelist John Gardner (Grendel) and soon became friends with him (though Jeff assured readers, in a tribute piece after Gardner’s death, that they weren’t). Jeff would leave stories for him to review, which he’d return with all the lines crossed out except “one or two good sentences.” This proved that Jeff honed his work into mastery though continual practice. He shows that creativity and success belong to any of us.

His experience assured me that teaching could compliment my career as a writer and, one day, a parent. I learned he was retiring from Brookdale Community College, after 21 years of service, right when my first book, The New American Crime Film, would see publication and I learned that I would become a father. As Jeff departs the college for life in Ohio, it’s bittersweet. I channel his inspiration at Camden County College and Rutgers-Camden by day and his determination over the keyboard by night.

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