It might seem a bit odd to hear from a former acquaintance by way of his obscure blog. That’s true, especially considering it has been the better part of 30 years since we last spoke. Thanks in advance for humouring me!
I am taking a course to try and improve my well-being. One of the assignments is a letter of gratitude to someone who made a difference in your life. Spoiler alert – this is my letter.
While I really do want to get into the gratitude part, I want to share some reminiscences. They may or not be 100% correct, but will at least show I was paying attention.
Of all temporary assignments, you were tasked with teaching English to a bunch of fresh-faced and marginally literate college kids. You were cool as a cucumber, though. A fairly freshly-minted MA sticking out of your back pocket, you had a PhD thesis in progress (a study of Hemingway, for sure, and I believe some comparisons to Lord Byron). Rocking a great mustache and sporting a haircut that commanded respect, black jeans and dress shirt – you were the man. You were pale but had an air of confidence. First year English students were not the toughest adversary you had faced! I should also add that you gained some serious cred when you won a “Days of Thunder” jacket from a contest on the classic Canadian music video show “Good Rockin’ Tonite”.
I was an earnest student as we worked our way through classic poems, short stories and novels. Weird, but I think the last word I wrote to you was “penis”. OK, before anyone reading this blog thinks that is just a tad inappropriate, the last (bonus) question on the English final was related to Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. “Fill in the sentence: Jake has no _______.” My answer was correct, but I did curse that I wasn’t cool enough to take the route of another student who wrote “…fun”. Oh well.
The genuine Tandy dot matrix printer on the top of the dresser in my shared apartment puked out a variety of essays for you to enjoy. I recall one: “Beasts and Peaches”, with some sort of tenuous link between famous poems by Yeats and Eliot. You poor bastard. Lucky for profs thereafter, I veered strongly into the sciences on my way to a forestry degree where I could do less literary damage (at least until picking up writing in recent years).
Before I started taking my latest course on well-being, I was writing a piece about an event that took place during the year I spent in your classroom. I have rewritten it several times and kept shelving it. I was chewing on this gratitude assignment and it came to me, one of the most pivotal aspects of that event was simply your response.
There is a much longer story to all of this, but I won’t go through it. I will just remind you of the short version. I had gone home for Thanksgiving, my first trip home from college. I went out hunting and fishing with my dad and three friends. Just after I left the camp there was an accident. The old man of the party had lost his balance and fallen into the lake while fishing. He swamped the boat trying to climb back in. In the end, the old man died but his friend survived – by the grace of several good decisions and an equal measure of miracles. I had to go back to the camp to help with the rescue effort, and then guide the ambulance back over the forest roads with its quiet cargo. The next day I drove our friends to the airport. The two men shed silent tears while holding hands in the back seat. It was the longest three hour drive in the world, as I sat awash in the sadness and guilt.
I had missed some classes, so when I got back to school I went out to your shoebox office in a wretched portable building. I am sure I told you the basics of what had happened. I can’t remember exactly what you said to me, but I can picture your face clearly, and most importantly I know how you made me feel. I felt your care for me as a person, not just as a student. You let me talk it out with concern for my well-being. That meant the world to me, thank you.
At the end of the year when I came to your office to say goodbye, you had a small gift for me. It wasn’t a Hemingway novel, but rather “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan, who allegedly bested Hemingway in a boxing match where F. Scott Fitzgerald was the referee. I enjoyed the story, but the treasure for me was the inscription. I carried the book with me through my school career and beyond. In the inscription, you referred to me as a “prince and a scholar”. Well, throughout my life I have done a lot of less-than-princely things, and I now wish I had directed my scholarly attention to different sorts of learning. But the sentiment stuck with me and some part of us always wants to rise to the possibilities presented to us. Thank you for taking the time to acknowledge me in such a direct and personal manner.
You will be pleased to know that my kind, smart and beautiful girlfriend of those early college days is now my kind, smart and beautiful wife of 27 years. Her encouragement for me to write is to blame for this blog. I have probably regressed in my knowledge of the English language since you held forth in English 101. But that spark of enthusiasm that you nurtured held for all these years, and now I share it in my own way.
Thank you, and my sincerest, wholehearted best to you in this life.
Photo: Image from “Dead Poet’s Society” (1989) Dead Poets Society (1989) (imdb.com)