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Chaos Theory

The Road Not Taken

A thank you to a strong woman who made a strong impression

By Cassie Bustamante

“What do you mean you’re going to work at Abercrombie & Fitch? You need to go to grad school,” my college advisor, Dr. Meg Zulick, says to me when I tell her my plans for after graduation. “You’ll be wasting your talents there.”

I’d been working part-time at the mall-based retailer and saw what seemed like an easy upward path. After four years of college, the last thing I wanted was more college. Admittedly, my boyfriend at the time (and future husband), Chris, who knew how to rock that A&F visor, just so happened to work there as a manager. It was a job and I needed one. I more than liked my boss and it paid decent wages. To be fair, it’s a career path that worked out well for Chris. Twenty-four years later, he’s gone from store manager to district management and is now a senior area leader for the restaurant chain Cava, a role in people development that he finds challenging and rewarding.

But me? No, I’d completely lost my footing and was unsure of who I was or who I could be in this world. But Dr. Zulick knew better. She’d been my advisor since I declared my double major in English and communications at Wake Forest University. And she was not having it.

Since she’d been assigned as my advisor, I’d opted to take her class, American Rhetoric, followed by American Rhetoric II. In both, we studied speeches and songs that influenced historic movements. As a fan of strong female artists — the Indigo Girls, Patti Griffin and Tori Amos ranked in my top five — I thought I knew a thing or two about music that mattered. But before stepping foot into Dr. Zulick’s classroom in Carswell Hall, the brick building that was home to the communications department, I’d never once listened to gospel music.

In her classroom, my eyes — and ears — were opened. Here, the powerful voice of Mahalia Jackson, whose music was central to the Civil Rights Movement, echoed throughout. “This Land is Your Land,” a beloved Woody Guthrie song, took on new meaning once I learned more about the man behind the lyrics. Later, his son, Arlo, penned the song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” a tune my family listened to every Thanksgiving on our drive to our gathering, just outside Worcester, Massachusetts. Growing up, I’d had no idea that the seemingly silly diner ditty I loved to sing along to was a protest anthem.

During many of Dr. Zulick’s sessions, a TV set would be wheeled in and we’d watch black-and-white footage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches, such as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” For speeches that preceded the age of radio and television, we read manuscripts, including the words of famed abolitionist, civil rights and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth.

I consumed and dissected every piece of rhetoric she fed us — and I loved it. There’s nothing I like more than discovering meaning behind lyrics and writings. During classroom discussions, my hand flew up. I poured myself into the papers I turned in to Dr. Zulick. I trusted her implicitly with my thoughts, through which she came to understand what lit me up. And, folks, I would discover fairly quickly that it wasn’t retail.

So, it’s no surprise that I find myself sitting across from her, red-faced and exasperated, as she says, “You’re making a mistake.”

And yet, I walked away — leaving college and Dr. Zulick behind me. I didn’t ask for a letter of recommendation so I could go on to grad school. Instead, I took the quick and easy route, thinking retail management might be just right for me. I married Chris and had a few kids. But — through a series of steps and missteps that led me along a path of finding out not only who I was, but what I could be — I found my way to O.Henry, where my love for rhetoric has found a home.

A year ago, I reached out to Dr. Zulick, still a Wake Forest professor. She agreed to meet me for lunch and suggested her favorite dive, Winston-Salem’s West End Café, a restaurant I remembered well from my undergrad years.

Across from Dr. Zulick — who insisted I call her Meg — in a booth, I replayed the last conversation we’d had. “I know I didn’t listen to you, but I wanted the opportunity to say to you in person how much impact you had on me. Your classes opened my eyes, but do you want to know what really stuck with me?” I asked her.

She shook her head.

“You believed in me. And your faith in me has stayed with me for more than 20 years.”

Over sandwiches, we talked about the past — her Pennsylvania-Dutch upbringing and her small local Quaker community — and the future, her retirement creeping around the corner. We chatted about my plans for O.Henry and she offered up some story ideas.

“Well,” I said, “maybe you could write them for us?”

“You know,” she said, “I just might take you up on that.”  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.