As I pull out my phone to use as a recorder, I realize 20 minutes have somehow disappeared inside Todd Lawrence’s office on the English third floor of the John R. Roach Center for Liberal Arts. Lawrence and I had circled around each other as I spent four years finishing an English minor and worked just down the hall from him at the Center for Writing, but we had never met before now.
Twenty minutes – talking about how video games are becoming the next frontier of creative storytelling, how stories are at the core of the human experience, how valuable it is to be sustained by fellow writers in the solitary world of writing – could have easily become an hour and 20 minutes. The guy’s just easy to talk to. Maybe that’s part of why the self-described “chill” professor has to dig when asked later what drives him crazy, and can only think of the fact that people seem to like to talk to him on the light rail a lot, even when it’s clear he doesn’t want to.
Lawrence came to St. Thomas in 2003 by way of Buffalo, New York (born), various stops throughout the Midwest (growing up), two hours south of Kansas City (high school), Rockhurst University (undergraduate), Creighton University (master’s) and University of Missouri (Ph.D.). An orientation leader at Rockhurst told Lawrence that English was one of two routes (along with history) where he could completely avoid math, so he was in. Three years later a professor pulled him into his office and – over the course of several cigarettes by said professor – explained why graduate school might be a good choice after Rockhurst. The path of an English professor was set.
What’s your favorite thing about being a professor?
The students. I learn a lot from students every class. It’s misleading to say I teach a class; what I really do is help to facilitate learning. We teach each other: Students teach me, I teach them, they learn from each other. It’s a group effort. Every semester is exciting.
What’s one thing you can’t live without?
Music. I love music. I’m not a musician, but I love music. Some of my best memories of my childhood include music. I have a giant music file collection, CD collection, vinyl collection. I’m happiest when I’m sitting on my front porch listening to jazz records. I like tons of different kinds of music. I’m a real fan of the golden age of hip-hop, blues, reggae, jazz, old-school country. I love to see live music when I can.
What has been your jam most recently?
I bought a Charlie Hayden album recently where he plays duets with other jazz musicians, so that’s it as far as an album goes. The song, though, that I’m pretty obsessed with right now is this Dennis Brown song, kind of a weird one. He’s a reggae musician, and the song’s about how he lives next door to this guy and needs to move away from him because he comes home drunk all the time and makes a bunch of noise. That’s basically what the whole song’s about, but it’s such a great song and his voice is so amazing. I’ve been going around my house playing it over and over.
Let’s say you have 20 minutes to pack a suitcase, and you’re going somewhere unknown for a year. What are you absolutely bringing?
A Kindle so I can take a lot of books. Books would be the No. 1 thing. Then my iPhone for the music. I’m thinking of the way to bring the most stuff. Then I could have all the books and music I needed.
What book would you have to bring?
I have a ton of favorites. Probably Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Maybe James Baldwin’s Another Country. Maybe Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Song of Solomon. There’s a ton of them. You see why I need the Kindle.
What’s the coolest pair of shoes you’ve ever owned?
In college I had a pair of H.H. Brown ankle books, and I loved them. Wore them all the time, until they were ragged. Now I wear PF Flyers every day. When you’re wearing PF Flyers, it’s like in “The Sandlot” with Benny the Jet. I wear those every day in case I need to break into a run.
What’s your biggest goal in life?
James Baldwin, in the preface to one of his collections of essays, says, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” I always thought that was a nice, succinct description. I’d like to be a good writer, but more, I want to be a good person, an honest person, and someone who connects with other people and helps them bring out the best in themselves. As a teacher that’s what I’m trying to do every day. I hope I’m helping them to engage their world in ways that are transformative for them. I’m not the person out there in politics or changing things in concrete ways, but if I’m in the classroom working with people who will be doing that, that’s how I can contribute.