I came late in learning of the passing of one of my English professors, Dr. Margaret Brodnax. She died at her home on March 30, 2013 at the age of 80. There was a nice obituary in Samford University’s Seasons which came in the mail this week and gave me the news. She lived a full life with academic achievement, lay leadership in the Episcopal Church, and was an early advisory board member for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I knew Margaret Brodnax as one amazing teacher. She knew her topic and she kept her students engaged in the material. My first encounter with her was in a World Lit class my sophomore year and she certainly helped to make that a memorable year.
“It Was All about Sex and Jesus”
Margaret Brodnax did two things to shake up my world that semester. The first shake up came when my first written assignment was handed back to me full of red marks. There was a “C” grade and a note to see her after class. I went to her in shock, not accustomed to C’s, wondering what was wrong with the work I had turned in.
“For one thing,” she said, “it wasn’t written very well…” My head must have been spinning by then. “Not written very well!” I could not believe what I was hearing. The bottom line was that she wanted me to re-write the brief paper addressing all of her comments in the margins. I think she wanted me to realize that I was just skimming the surface of the reading material, responding with some cursory answers. She wanted me to delve into the reading assignment to find the nuances of meaning and to take note of some core life issues. After I did the re-write, she gave me a better grade, smiled and said, “That was so much better, Charles.”
The second thing she did was the astounding way she brought ancient Greek literature to life. I was a 19 year old ministerial student who had not seen much beyond my rural Baptist environment in Tallapoosa County before arriving at Samford. It seemed that with every Greek drama or myth that we studied, Dr. Brodnax brought it home to us by appealing to our adolescent hormones and our Sunday School lessons from home. I was in no small way unnerved by that. Back in the dorm I told my friends, “No matter what our reading assignment is, she relates everything to sex and Jesus!” Years later, after I had finished grad school, traveled the world and was on my second job, I took it upon myself to read Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God series. Campbell opened up the ancient world and their grounding mythologies to explain not only their world but the heritage we have received from those ancient times. As he explained the ancient fertility rites and the spiritual concepts of our ancient forebears, it hit me: “Margaret Brodnax was right! It all comes down to sex and Jesus!”
It Was All about Being Fully Engaged in Life
Well, in my early college days, I was glad to get out of Dr. Brodnax’s class with a decent grade, but I was afraid she was a little too much for me to handle. Then came my senior year when I needed one more elective to complete my English Major. Dr. Brodnax was teaching a graduate level course on Edmund Spenser, with the bulk of the course addressing The Faerie Queene. She granted me permission to take that graduate curriculum to be counted as a 400 level course in order to fulfill my academic requirements. I was a little bit intimidated at first. There were only five in the class and I was I there with those graduate students! In addition, we had to actually present our term papers in class.
Throughout that course, Margaret Brodnax was nothing but supportive. One of the texts that she wanted us to use was a specific edition of The Faerie Queene. She told me, “You don’t need to buy that one; I’ve got an old copy you can have.” The course unfolded into a wonderful experience. My paper dealt with Sir Gawain and the Red Night, and my research actually became for me a process of spiritual enrichment. Her final note to me written on the last page of my paper was, “I hope you enjoyed writing this as much as I enjoyed reading it.” That was a long way from the first comment she had made back during my sophomore year. It also indicated progress that I would not have made without dedicated and engaged teaching.
That is the way she was. Nothing was routine or matter-of-fact for her. In her classes, she did not simply impart information. She made connections with the students to bring the subject matter to life. Literature was intensely important and she took her role as teacher very seriously. She intended to see that every student was awakened to the essence of life that was reflected in the stories we read. She wanted us all to be fully engaged in life. Margaret O’Bryan Brodnax, teacher extraordinaire! May she rest in peace.