UNCA Spanish professor grooves with literature

By Anna Frate – afrate@unca.edu – Contributor

A young Eric Gant spent his afternoons reading his beloved Nancy Drew novels and discovering his passion for literature during his youth in New York.

“Get your head out of those books, boy,” his parents would say.

Gant said he finds it strange that any parent would tell their child to stop reading.

“My joys for reading might have come from my stays in New York. In North Carolina it was just the Bible, go outside and play football,” he said.

Born into an African-American family, Gant grew up with a strong sense of community.

“When I grew up there was the village. I lived very close to my father’s mother and father. I had two aunties that lived on the same street, we had the church in the very center of the community,” he said. “I was very typical and had the same experiences that everyone else had. The only thing I did different was that I had a calling. I didn’t really choose it, it chose me.”

Gant, assistant professor of foreign languages at UNC Asheville, remembers languages and communication coming to him naturally even as a young boy. As early as first grade he would translate for the Latino kids in his class.

“God gives us gifts,” he said. “My parents never read to me, so I don’t know where I picked it up.”

Gant, 54, boyishly spins in his chair, proudly listing titles from his vast collection of cherished literature. His great love is poetry, his favorite verse being that of Pablo Neruda. Gant eagerly retells the plot of a Neruda poem, a written ode to a pair of socks.

“He just understands human nature so much,” Gant said. “I think we all have that experience where someone gives you something simple like a scarf or a handkerchief but it means so much.”

Despite Gant’s love of literature, the bookshelf in his office doesn’t contain a single book. Nearly blending into the wood, a few binders occupy a small space of the shelves. No labels distinguishing one from the other, the notebooks lay on their side with nothing there to hold them up. An antithetical office for a man who owns the original Nancy Drew novels and can recite his favorite poems.

So where are the books?

“I had them here and people would come in and want to buy them. Or students would come and they’d ask for a book, and I’d just give it to them,” Gant said.

According to Gant, transporting the precious novels between his office and home became exhausting and he isn’t interested in handing them out like candy on Halloween.

Gant recalls his college days as a tumultuous but exciting time. For an undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, activism became education. Thrilled to take an active role in social movement, Gant vividly remembers a particular professor encouraging student sit-ins.

“There was a protest outside, we were on the third floor of the building and the teacher said, ‘Well, instead of having class let’s just go protest.’ For me that was really groovy,” Gant said.

Protests on the quad and classes being canceled to discuss women’s rights remain fresh in his memory. A time when professors didn’t worry about being arrested resonates with Gant.

“I don’t think that could happen now,” he said and shrugs in disappointment.

According to Gant, the future lies with youth.

“The hope is with you, with the young people,” he said. “I fear that now if the younger generation doesn’t look out, you’re going to get stepped on.”

A quality now unique to developing nations, Gant said the community he grew up in no longer exists.

“I do enjoy that he encourages us to get to know one another as students. I get a community feeling, and I really like that. I just wish I was learning more Spanish,” said Shannon Capes, a senior in Gant’s Spanish 120 course. “And I definitely disagree with some of his teaching methods.”

Gant said he remains on the fence about the foreign language requirement at UNCA. He doesn’t expect a student will walk away speaking, writing, and reading Spanish fluently after two semesters in a class that only meets three times a week.

“I really enjoy the way he makes us use Spanish,” said Stephen Fusco, one of Gant’s students. “This is the second class I’ve taken with him. I feel that he cares about the class and wants everyone to do well.”

Capes and Fusco mutually agree the humor in Gant’s classroom encourages communication amongst classmates.

“I usually remember things better because he is so eccentric,” said Fusco.

Retirement can’t come soon enough for the 54-year-old Spanish assistant professor. His ideal day involves sitting on his porch, feet up, book in hand.

“I am the happiest in the summer when I don’t have to teach. I can sit on the porch and just read. African-American men don’t do that just as a general rule,” Gant said.

According to Gant, the importance of education varies with the person.

“A question for you might be what is the importance of education? And maybe it’s just to keep yourself sane, to survive. Somehow you can go into another world when you’re reading,” Gant said.

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