Retiring professor Lezlie Laws says she’s the Oprah Winfrey of Rollins College. (No, you’re not getting a free car.)
Professor Lezlie Laws twists to energize her spine in Half Lord of the Fishes pose. (Photo by Scott Cook)
“I sort of feel like I’m the Oprah of Rollins College.”
Lezlie Laws is seated inside the Starbucks on Park Avenue on a crystal-clear afternoon in early March, sipping a coffee and reflecting on her 24 years as a professor of English (and, occasionally, yoga, a passion she acquired a dozen years ago) at Rollins College. Come May, she’s retiring—not without some reluctance, she confesses. She’ll still be an adjunct, probably teaching one course a semester. The rest of the time, she wants to focus on teaching adults how to nurture their inner creativity: “Artful living is cultivated,” she explains. “It has to be practiced, attended to. I want to teach you how to do that.”
More on that in a second. First, let’s go back to that Oprah thing. “I liked how her TV show was really just an outgrowth of her life,” Laws says. “This is a woman who is playing out her life in her work. I feel I’ve done that at Rollins.”
Her move to Rollins in 1989 was serendipitous. Her then-husband, also a professor, got a job at Stetson, so they moved from Missouri—she pronounces it Missourah, as actual Missourians do—and she began querying colleges in the area. Rollins took her on. “It was like coming home for me,” she says. She’d previously taught at the University of Missouri, a large, research-intensive place, and the chance to teach at a small, liberal arts school—and one “so stunningly beautiful” at that—grabbed her.
“What I didn’t know was that the loveliness was not skin deep,” she says. “What Rollins does for people, it gives an enormously long leash in terms of being creative and innovative.”
In so many words, her employer indulged her eccentricities.
This freedom is reflected in her curriculum vitae, full of books and essays she’s edited, written, or contributed to: “Bringing Down the Fire: Writing with Emotion,” in the journal Thought and Action in 2002; the poem “This Is Just to Say,” which appeared in the 2005 book Bridging English; “Welcome to the Underworld,” Laws’s contribution to the 2000 book The Orlando Group and Friends: A Collection of Writings and Art.
But her Oprah-like tendency to have her work reflect her life primarily shows in the courses she’s elected to teach. In addition to her regular crop of writing classes, she’s created some 20 courses of her own: Spiritual Autobiography; Yoga, Writing, and Meditation; and The Search for Meaning among them.
In 2000, she designed and taught 2001: A Writing Odyssey, a yearlong course in which she pushed her students to develop their own transformative creative project, doing away with assignments and points along the way, and instead having her students forge their own path. They wrote memoirs, poetry, letters to their families, whatever suited them. “I’m still dear, dear friends with people who were in that class,” she says. “The products were one thing. The real event was how the hearts and minds of students changed.”
Last year, after years of contemplation, she decided to get a dog. And so she taught a course called Man’s Best Friend, a literary exploration of canines. Together, she and the class traversed a wide swath of fiction and nonfiction books about dogs, and in the end, each member of the class—all of whom, not surprisingly, were dog lovers—was asked to recommend what kind of dog Laws should get. “It was like having a bunch of grandmothers who couldn’t stop talking about their grandchildren.”
(She ended up getting a Bichon Frise named Dash.)
And this year, as she prepares to exit, she’s teaching a class she considers “my last hurrah,” the culmination of her years exploring the many facets of the human condition—which is what liberal arts colleges, and for that matter good literature, do. It’s called Life’s Big Questions. Encompassing texts and source material from such disparate sources as a Tibetan Buddhism teacher, Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Jay-Z, Chris Rock (seriously), former Rollins student and red-hot memoirist Eddie Huang, and a collection of advice columns. And, as the course title suggests, the goal is to explore the meaning of life.
“In a liberal arts college, you’re always under a beautiful, diaphanous umbrella of big questions,” she says. (If you, like us, had to look up “diaphanous,” don’t feel bad. She is an English teacher, after all.) “I ask myself and my students, ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What is it all about?’ ‘Is there anything we were designed to do?’”
When she talks about this class, and the countless others she’s led over the last two decades, her piercing brown eyes, alit with memory, drift off into the distance, looking beyond you, her voice effusive with passion and elegantly crisp sentences. Clearly Laws loves her job. Which prompts the question: Why does she want to retire?
“I don’t! I don’t. I really don’t. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought I’ve made a huge mistake.” But she’s not really leaving. She’ll still be around, and she’ll still teach. And she won’t miss the assessments and bureaucracy and politics that accompany full-time professorship; they’re necessary and unavoidable, she says, but better left to younger people.
“I'm leaving so filled with happiness and gratitude,” she says. “I cannot tell you. I will start crying. This is the best year ever.”
But then she adds, “I have not done my best teaching yet.”
The difference is Laws wants to teach from a different platform. Instead of students, she wants to focus on an area her research has recently taken her—the development of creativity. Specifically, adults who, either because of time or money or space, haven’t yet channeled the creativity she believes is inherent to humanity. They just need to be nudged.
“I want to be that nudge,” she says.