I met Jake when I was 17. I am writing this story now because I don't know if I'll ever have the strength to do so again. I am writing this story on an airplane. And so I am nowhere. And so I can say anything.
I met Jake Adam York when I was 17. He came to my high school English class to read his poems to us. I was only beginning to understand my love of writing and literature then. I didn't understand that writers did things on purpose. I didn't understand that there were conscious decisions to be made about word choice and about structure. At that point in my life, I thought all writing was a kind of magic that came through a person and appeared on a page. When I heard Jake speak for the first time, I knew I was completely right and completely wrong. He walked us through the steps of his magic. He explained, patiently, to a shocked audience, that writing is both a thing that happens and a thing you work at. He read "Negatives." And to this day, I have never been more in awe of a poem. And I know I never will be. Because hearing something like that for the first time, a poem written by a real person who is reading it in front of you, that's a thing you only get to experience once in your life.
I didn't expect to know Jake outside of that experience. I didn't expect New York City to defeat me so quickly. But after one semester in New York, I returned to Colorado. I enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver and I made sure to take a class with Jake the first chance I got.
In the Fall of 2007, Jake was offering a class in the American short story. I was shy. I sat in the back row the entire first day just trying to gather the courage to introduce myself. To remind him that we'd met just a year and a half previous in my high school class room. As I walked out of class, I took a deep breath and walked up to him. If you know Jake at all, you know how intimidating he is at first sight. Tall, brilliant, take no shit attitude. But I said HiI'mAliandIdon'tknowifyouremembermebutIrememberyoufromwhenyouvisitedRoxanneBanks'sEnglishclassatLittletonHighSchoolsoIjustwantedtointroducrmyselfHiI'mAliokbye.
He calmly looked me in the eyes. Told me he remembered. Told me I should join the Copper Nickel editorial board. Explained to me what that meant. Sensed my hesitation and said, I expect to see you at the meeting next week.
One of the best days of my life, and I'm really talking top 3 here, was the day Jake Adam York asked me to be the fiction editor at Copper Nickel. We were at a Copper Nickel release party when he came up to me where I was selling issues of the journal and he said he'd like me to take over the position. Only one other person in my life had ever expressed this kind of confidence in me, and it's no coincidence that that other person was the person who introduced me to Jake. They were like my own personal two person cheerleading team: Jake Adam York and Roxanne Banks. It is because of them that I know I am smart. It is because of them that I know I am capable. It is because of them that I am doing this with my life, pursuing my PhD in literature, writing, teaching, trying to do for others what these two did for me.
About a year ago, I wrote Jake a letter. I had just finished applying to PhD programs and he, for the second time, had written me a letter of recommendation. Instead of the standard thank you card, I took the opportunity to write him a long letter detailing the ways in which he changed my life. Because if you know Jake, you know how worried he always was about people liking him. That's a weird sentence for me to write. This powerhouse. This tornado of inspiration. This person who affected people he never even MET. That he would ever worry what a soul thought of him, that he would ever be distressed by some shitty student's bad review, that pains me so much. But he also had constant positive reinforcement from the people who loved him, and for every person who complained about how much reading he assigned, there was another person who expressed nothing but appreciation for his attention and kindness.
Getting a compliment from Jake was like getting a compliment from god. Or the president. Or whoever's compliment might mean the world to you. One day, Jake returned to me one of the many drafts of my honors thesis he was helping me to write. He had scribbled out the introduction paragraph. He told me my sentences in that paragraph hated each other. He told me it was like they all thought the other sentences had cooties. Of course he was right. But he also told me, "that said, this last section is brilliant. You are brilliant." Nothing anyone will ever say to me will affect me like that comment did. Whenever I lose hope, whenever I feel stupid, whenever I want to quit this life of academia, I remember that comment. I remember that the most brilliant man I will ever know told me I am brilliant. And that one comment, those three seconds of my life, will guide me on this journey forever.
I want to tell you all the other things Jake said, how supportive he was, how he gave me the strength to fight the things I fight every day. Not just in my career, but in my life. When my Facebook status read "feels like someone poured acid down my insides," he was the only person to ask if I was feeling less acidic the next day. Whenever I would rush into a meeting late because of some ridiculous thing or other I'd been mixed up in, he was the first to make sure I was doing ok. When I got stuck in a riot during the DNC in 2008, I told him my mom said that if I were arrested, she wouldn't bail me out of jail. He told me it didn't matter, because he'd bail me out of jail, no matter how ridiculous my crime. When we last met for drinks, as we left Bull and Bush, where we always met to catch up, he hugged me and said "you're not going to understand this right now, but I just want you to know that anything you ever need from me, ANYTHING, EVER, just ask me, and it's yours." You could tell he'd been saving this till the end of our meeting. I was speechless. I felt, suddenly, like everything was possible in my life, because I had such an incredible person on my team, always.
But I don't need to tell you this. Because if you knew Jake, you know how he took care of his people. You know that he would do anything for the people he loved. He always used to tell me, "that's my problem, Ali. I always say yes." He taught me to say yes. To take care of my own. To fight for my place in this world. He taught me that I am smart, that I am talented, that I am capable, that I WILL get whatever it is I decide I want.
No one has been more of a mentor. No one ever could be. I grew up with and through Jake's guidance. I owe him everything I have now. He was my inspiration when I was 17 years old. He will be my inspiration for the rest of my life.