Last Friday when I learned that Professor Tollefson had passed away, I wrote a piece on the blog as a tribute to his brilliance as a teacher and a human being. Last night, I did a brief interview with The Daily Californian about my experience with the class, hoping to pass on a student’s perspective.
Today, the article was posted online, which you can read here.
Six months ago as I realized my last semester of college was upon me, I walked into CW130 a jaded student. With this class, I would be fulfilling the final requirement of my Creative Writing Minor and honestly, I was ready to leave the baby-faced freshmen behind and head out into the real world. I thought to myself, “Just get this class over with and graduate.”
Then I met Steve Tollefson…and everything changed.
While calling roll on that first day, he pronounced my name “Re-JAI-na,” you know, like Saskatchewan. And I thought, “Who the hell pronounces ‘Regina’ like that?” That was the beginning of my interaction with Steve.
The class was split into three sections and Professor Tollefson taught the first one: The Personal Essay. Energetic, hilarious, and insightful, he was everything you’d want in a professor. When we read the essay Virtual Tibet by Orville Schell, we learned that the Tibetans called Brad Pitt, “Bread Peet,” due to their accents. Because we had a classmate named Brad, Steve, in full Tollefson-style, called him “Bread Peet” for four and a half weeks.
Whenever I asked a question in class about the reading, he didn’t skimp on answers. He encouraged debate and loved it when students didn’t agree on points, said that’s how great ideas are formed. He was a kid at heart, and us 20 students fell in love with his goofy smile and his enthusiasm for the class. It helped that he looked a little like David Letterman’s hyperactive twin brother.
Professor Tollefson routinely brought us snacks, but one fateful day, he forgot to, and he didn’t hear the end of it from us. Looking back on it now, he must have been genuinely distraught: After getting us started on a writing exercise, he left the room for a good 15 minutes and came back with Cheez-Its and Jalapeno Cheetos. I still have no idea where he went to get those because I’m sure nothing on campus sells Jalapeno Cheetos.
Regrettably, I missed the last day of The Personal Essay section when I flew to Oregon for my last Handball Collegiates. When I emailed him about my absence, he wrote back, “Good luck. I’m sorry you’ll miss our last day.” His constant communication with us, either through email or in person, was a strong factor in the success of my personal essay, a piece I can say I’m extremely proud of.
He had us students present the readings to the whole class, which was followed by lengthy discussions of all that good English-major jargon. And Steve was just as much involved in the discussions as we were. I think he liked the walla of a good classroom conversation– the way he got super excited and jumpy at a good idea or argument proved he was passionate about interacting with students.
The class went by quickly. In the blink of an eye, we had moved on to Short Fiction. Just as we were beginning to build a rapport with Professor Tollefson, he was gone, now only available through email and office hours. We all felt that something had been taken away from us, like we were going through a break up. During my last class with Steve, he went up to the front of the room and wrote our final assignment up on the chalkboard: Personal Essay — Final Draft.
He was extremely smart and knowledgable about his craft. Anyone who’s ever been a student of his could tell how excited he was to share it with a new batch of writers every semester.
Professor Tollefson passed away early this morning from “an aggressive form of cancer that doesn’t respond to any known treatment,” as Professor Larkin wrote in an email to our class this evening. I’m honored and thankful that I got to be part of the last group of students to ever take a course with him. I’m sure my 19 other classmates feel the same way.
A couple of classes into Short Fiction, I emailed Steve my final essay, and he wrote, “Regina–Got it. Thanks. Miss all of you already.”