About year ago, when I was living in Madrid, I was contacted by David Roman, a USC English professor. In an altogether brief yet intensely moving conversation, he informed me that I had been selected to receive the 2017 Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award, which is given to 6 graduating English majors at USC each spring. It was one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me. Unfortunately I was unable to be at the dinner, since I was living so far away from LA. On the evening of April 29, I had the immense honor of attending this year’s dinner. In a serendipitous twist, my dear friend Vanessa Batyko was one of this year’s recipients, and so I was able to share the night with her.
At the dinner, each recipient is introduced by a professor, and then each gives a short speech. I was introduced by Aimee Bender. I cannot tell you what this means to me. To be chosen by Aimee, who is one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite teachers and one of my favorite human beings on this planet—to be chosen by her for this honor, and then to hear her sing my praises before a room full of nicely dressed lovers of literature and creativity in a cozy and elegant restaurant in Echo Park (yet all of that is almost besides the point, isn’t it? it was really her words that mattered most, and why don’t I have a perfect memory or a video to rewatch? but she certainly used words like compassionate and open and vulnerable)—to be chosen by her, for that, moved me in a way that is so warm, so affirming, so empowering; it is like a light in me that had grown a bit dim has been brightened a hundredfold, cranked up from a flickering tea light to a blazing sun.
Then I spoke, and I spoke openly and honestly of my time at USC, including my battles with mental illness and my struggles to come to terms with my sexuality; and also about the hugely positive role the USC English department played in my college story. To quote myself (is that allowed?), I said, “I do believe that literature—and the people of this institution who have dedicated their lives to the study and creation of it—saved me.” I think it’s true.
Jimmy Gauntt was an English major at USC, and a student of David Roman‘s—not long after he graduated, when he was 24 years old, he was struck by a car and killed. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant light in the world and is missed greatly by many; his death and his life inspired the genesis of this award. It lives on, bearing his name, in a really lovely spirit of affirmation; it has at its heart the idea that recognizing goodness in others is of the utmost importance and carries great, great power. It’s a simple idea really, we all know it—that all people really want is to be loved and cherished, and that we have the power, WE have the power, to make the ones we love feel so—yet how often do we remember? How common is it to act on this? To choose generosity over cynicism, genuineness over derision, love over indifference, inaction, or paralysis? I hope, I pray, that last night left a lasting mark on my heart; I hope that now I might remember better.
And I really wanted to share these photos—they were taken of Aimee and me after we had both finished speaking.
Feeling so blessed & inspired. Thank you, thank you.
Matt Eighmy and Professor Aimee Bender