nglish professor Rita Riddle encourages her students to take a real deep breath of life and then exhale on paper.
Riddle has made such an impact on the young writers who take her classes that they often choose her as the subject when they are assigned to write essays.
Former student Steven Nasr Salaita was 19 when he enrolled in Riddle’s undergraduate poetry-writing seminar in 1995. He said that writing at that time “was a diversion to me, a way of exploring the post-adolescent/pre-adulthood stage. Fulfillment seemed to rest in more realistic endeavors.”
Riddle influenced him to view writing in a different light, as reflected in Salaita’s piece, “Scene of Conscious Rapture,” published in the Virginia English Bulletin.
“Her goal was to break our thoughts apart and force us to add to the fragments rather than piecing them back together,” Salaita wrote. “Her silver-white hair, falling in a perfect circle to the tops of her ears and upper neck, embodies a wise flamboyance that moves effortlessly between common sense and blind passion.”
Riddle, described by another student as having “the face of a 60-year-old angel,” will tell you her teaching philosophy is simple: “I try to have a crazy sense of humor and fun on a daily basis.”
When she discusses her own writing she says, “I don’t think it’s my job to entertain the universe.” She says what she has to say and gets on with life.
Former students say that because she “doesn’t sugarcoat” what she writes, they are encouraged to do the same. Riddle’s interaction with her students sets the stage for honesty and yanks at the very roots that have anchored them since birth.
Former student Jill Harrison characterizes Riddle as “an intellectual with the softest human characteristics. She is interested in your life and sharing her own.” Harrison says that Riddle’s works are sarcastic, painful, and funny much like real life and says if you ask people on campus what they think of this professor, they will reply “I love Dr. Riddle.”
Riddle is careful not be to a counselor to her students “but sometimes I can’t help it.” (Her license plate reads DR MAMA.) Because of the roads she has traveled, she can sense the hidden hurt and pain that tries to suffocate the life out of the younger generation. She tells of a young lady who came into class one day obviously upset. “I knew something was wrong but she didn’t want to talk about it. I let her know she could.” As it turned out, the young lady had been betrayed by her boyfriend in a way that made her feel worthless and tainted. “I let her know she didn’t have to put up with people like that and a person who would do such a thing isn’t worth the time of day. Maybe somewhere along the way she thought she had to, but I let her know she didn’t,” Riddle says.
When reading students’ writing, Riddle knows she sometimes will have to wade through the murky waters of sadness, grief and depression. “You get them to start with some thing, some place, some incident. Even some smell. Yes, smell has a lot to do with the way we remember things. They begin pulling their stories out of those things,” she says.
“It takes a great deal to be able to reveal and share those kinds of things with someone else,” she says.
Riddle loves to see the fruits of her labor peeled down before her eyes. “There is nothing like watching a student find that one thing they want to write about and then do it. When they find what they want to say, it’s great,” she says.
One can almost feel the weight of sorrow on Riddle’s shoulders when she talks about students that have come of age in her class and opened the pages of their lives for all the world to see. Much of what goes on between Riddle and her students involves a visible release of emotion and the casting off of evil spirits and those foreboding black clouds that sometimes hover.
“You need to get these kids to talk about things,” Riddle believes. “They should know they don’t have to be afraid to speak what’s on their minds. They have to talk about the things nobody else wants to talk about.” This includes broken hearts, betrayal, death, divorce, money and the lack thereof, loyalty vs. reality and myriad other subjects that people are reluctant to sit down and discuss. “People will open up to you when they know you have been through the same kind of thing,” she says. “They’ll tell you things that wouldn’t tell anybody else.” That’s one of the many reasons students are so drawn to this lady who says she is more “pistols than doll babies.”
They learn from her that it is good to know pride in one’s heritage and honesty and integrity are still much sought-after traits.
While she has had students who have set her poetry to song, used her as the object of their essays, and even talked about her in their professional publications, Riddle still is held in awe of those who wrote the purest and simplest things. It is just as special for Riddle to have a poem written about her in class as it would be for someone to get up and applaud her in front of the entire universe. When a student makes a breakthrough in their writing and Riddle sees that they have captured the very essence of who they are in words, she’s doubly proud. “I love to see that happen,” she says, but sometimes it is a bit overwhelming. “There was this one girl who wrote a story about running over a turtle. This thing had happened to her and she was so depressed over what turned out to be a loss of a friend. She talked about death by drugs and all kinds of things in that story. She had been really tortured. Running over this turtle just led her into talking about all these other things. It was so wonderfully paraphrased and it ends up being a piece that talks about many obstacles. “She was really tortured,” Riddle says. “It is such a moving story, one that I won’t forget.”
Michael White, now an Appalachian Studies and drama professor in Surry, North Carolina, made Riddle the subject of his entry in the forthcoming Appalachian Encyclopedia.
“I can’t single out a student that has been the very best but he’s certainly would be one of them,” Riddle says. White and Riddle formed a unique bond when he was a student at RU and neither can, or would want to, break the ties that have kept them together through the years. “There’s not any one thing that has caused it to happen. It’s a lot of different things,” she says.
David Owens, one of this year’s College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s scholars at RU, was another student who will not soon forget Dr. Mama. He wrote the following poem in honor of his beloved professor and it describes with great accuracy what Rita Sizemore Riddle is all about.
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