“Ouachita Voices” borrows its name from the university’s 125th anniversary commemorative coffee table book that features essays from a number of notable Ouachitonians. This is an excerpt from the personal entry of Amy Sonheim.
When my husband and I joined Ouachita’s faculty nearly 25 ago, our best friends from college and graduate school traveled from their homes in other states to check out what a town called “Arkadelphia” might offer. While most were certain they could never make the switch to a small Arkansas community, one friend was a bit more upbeat. “Lake DeGray is nice,” she said. In pursuing our PhDs, my husband and I had grown accustomed to the joys of variety—so accustomed that I experienced culture shock. So, in a lamentable moment, I crooned this country-western original to some students:
“I moved to Ar-kan-sas from Mi-zourah—
Thought that it would be just one state … down–.
But, I had a rest-less-ness and long-ing—
Be-cause there was no ba-gel shop in … town!
Ba-gel shop—we’d smoke salmon ’til we dropped,
‘Have some lox; pass some more cre-am cheese—’…”
When I was a young PhD hired to teach for the English Department, I mistakenly thought I would be among those bringing variety to campus. But, Ouachita has brought me time and again rich experiences in the unexpected.
One night, the doorbell rang. Three French tennis players were door-to-door selling, not bagels, but even better, hot loaves of bread—authentic French bread in Arkadelphia. One birthday, for a Zimbabwean philosophy professor and his wife, my friend staged a luau at a Mongolian yurt that her husband had built. And then, there was the unforgettable surprise: During the theater department’s run of Grapes of Wrath, Eric Phillips and Scott Holsclaw made it rain—on stage.
Expected to teach, I was unexpectedly given semesters to learn. I took Russian, French and Advanced Grammar. Byron and Amy Eubanks taught me how to kayak and canoe. My thirst to study grew unbounded, as Ouachita financed conferences for me to present and receive research. Crowning these ventures was my first-time reading of literary masterpieces, elbow to elbow with absolutely brilliant students.
For me, Scholars Day is an eye opener to all the surprising studies that occur weekly. Ouachita, located in the river bottoms of the rural South, is as fertile as ever in surprisingly gifted students. I find myself applauding well-directed films, well-run basketball plays, spine-tingling arias, artfully painted canvasses, clearly laid-out newspapers, unbelievable instrumentalists, masterfully designed logos and well-written essays. The students set the bar of surprise high. By working with these types of students, I have been shaped into a teacher who expects the unexpected.
And so it was that the humdrum setting I thought I was bracing for over two decades ago turned into the joyful surprise of a lifetime.
Dr. Amy Sonheim, Professor of English, is a former director of the Carl Goodson Honors Program. A graduate of Wheaton College, Baylor University and the University of Missouri, she has served at Ouachita since 1993.
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