“As a teacher of literature, I’m sometimes questioned about its relevance. It’s one of those subjects that makes students ask, ‘Why do I need to know this?’” Susan Lassiter, MC associate professor of English, says. “I believe that literature is relevant because it teaches us empathy. As a young reader, I loved a variety of books and identified with many characters – Jo in Little Women, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Those characters and how they react to adversity, injustice, and relationships become a part of our conscious and subconscious.
“Literature gives readers the opportunity to see how others have dealt with the crushing pain and the ultimate joy of life,” Lassiter continues. “That’s why we reach for the Bible to know we aren’t the first to hurt or feel abandoned, or for the Nancy Drew book to know we need to begin to figure our way out of trouble. When I teach literature, I try to make it relevant to situations students might experience in their own lives.”
Students and colleagues who meet Susan Lassiter for the first time are struck by her lively, outgoing personality, quick wit, and ready smile. Listening as Lassiter chats about her favorite books and authors and recalls adventures from her previous career in high fashion, it’s hard to imagine that her own biography would include tragic loss and a life-threatening illness. But taking her cue from the characters in her well-worn book collection, in times of trial, Susan Lassiter has always looked to the chapter ahead.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in English, confirmed bookworm Susan Lassiter applied for a position with McRae’s Department Stores as an assistant buyer in the retail chain’s book department. But like the novels Lassiter enjoyed most, the interview took an unexpected twist.
“I had always loved fashion, and I went to the interview dressed the way I imagined the people I saw in Vogue magazine might dress,” Lassiter recalls with a laugh. “I must have made an impression, because instead of putting me in the book department, they hired me to be the assistant to the special events director, planning fashion shows.”
Lassiter was soon promoted to fashion coordinator, a position that found her styling McRae’s advertisements, catalogs, and TV commercials. Five years later, she became a corporate buyer, traveling to New York City several times a year to meet with the world’s premier fashion designers.“
I remember walking down Seventh Avenue on my way to meet with Calvin Klein or Oscar de la Renta, and thinking to myself, ‘How did I get here?’” Lassiter says. “I had read books about models and the fashion industry as a little girl, but I never dreamed I would have my own career in that world. It was a very exciting time.”
Lassiter worked for McRae’s for a decade while also juggling a busy home life that included her husband, Larry, and their young son, John. While she loved the fast-paced world of high fashion, the travel required meant spending several weeks at a time away from her family. When she and her husband began discussing having another child, Lassiter realized the time had come to change careers. In 1985, she left McRae’s and returned to graduate school at MC with plans to earn her master’s degree in English and become a teacher.
Lassiter’s passion for literature had never waned. She enjoyed the challenge of returning to school and the freedom to spend more time with four-year-old John. While she was studying and teaching as a graduate assistant, Lassiter and her husband learned they were expecting a baby girl. Their life together seemed headed for a storybook ending.
The story changed with a knock on the door on a cold night in December of 1986. Lassiteranswered to find the police waiting with devastating news. Her 33-year-old husband had been killed in a car accident. Numb with grief and shock, Lassiter found comfortin her friends and family, her faith, and in the literature she had always loved.
“My favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, whose work I read all through school and went back to after Larry died, describes the process of dealing with grief: This is the hour of lead /Remembered if outlived/As freezing persons recollect the snow/ First chill, then stupor, then the letting go,” Lassiter says. “The realization that some of us don’t outlive our grief was so evident in some of the people who came to comfort me – their pain was so overwhelming, they could not see the joy in their lives. I was not going to be one of those people. The line I kept remembering was ‘then the letting go.’ My grief was at times overwhelming, but I was not going to let my children grow up thinking life ends when it doesn’t turn out as you planned. I had to let go of my dreams of the past and work on new ones with them.
“Three weeks after Larry Lassiter’s death, his daughter, Emily, was born on what would have been the Lassiters’ wedding anniversary. A few weeks later, Susan Lassiter returned to the classroom. She continued to teach as a graduate assistant, earning her master’s degree in 1989. When a fulltime teaching position opened at MC that same year, Lassiter accepted it, and was eventually promoted to her current position as assistant professor of English.
In 1992, Lassiter married Jim Temple, a fellow member of Epworth Methodist Church who had fallen in love not only with Susan, but also with John and Emily Lassiter. But just when it seemed they would live happily ever after, the family was thrown another twist. In 1997, Lassiter was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Once again, Lassiter’s comfort came in the support of her family, her faith, and in the pages of her favorite books.“
Books taught me that grief is not reserved for a loss of a loved one,” Lassiter says. “Humans grieve over the loss of love, the loss of dreams, the loss of dignity, and untold other reasons. The way we deal with loss comes from all the pieces that make us who we are. I was determined and positive because I never knew any other way to be.”
More than a decade later, Lassiter is fully recovered and celebrating her twenty-sixth year as an instructor at MC. Over the course of her career, she has become one of the university’s most well-loved and popular professors. Most of her students are unaware of the tragedies she has overcome in years past, but they do sense in Susan Lassiter an empathetic quality that makes her not only an outstanding teacher, but also a trusted friend and inspirational role model.
“Professor Lassiter is simply the best teacher I have ever had, not just at MC, but at any school I have ever attended,” says MC junior Danielle Ashley. “She is extremely intelligent, but she teaches in a way that surpasses the academic level. She makes literature come to life and relates it to real life. In her class, I’ve learned about relationships, life, death, communication, and so much more. Realizing how much I’ve learned about life and literature from her, I’ve even considered becoming a professor myself. To say I’m blessed to have her as a teacher is an understatement. Because of Professor Lassiter, I’m a better person.”
Far more important than teaching her students how to interpret passages from poems or write a research paper, Lassiter has helped her students find the same empathy, the same connection, and the same comfort in literature that she herself has discovered.“
I had a student who really struggled to get through one of my sophomore literature classes. Six years later, he showed up at my office door, and told me he was coming back to school to take more English courses. I asked him why.” Lassiterpauses, her eyes filling with tears. “He said, ‘I’ve been in the military, fighting in the Middle East. When it was dark and I was lonely and scared, I could hear your voice, reading those poems. That was what got me through.’”
As Professor Susan Lassiter well knows, literature doesn’t get any more relevant than that.