The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Dies Irae

I know, I know. You’ve been waiting for almost two damn months for an update, and I’ve probably lost three quarters of my readers by now. But on the chance there’s still someone out there that has this bookmarked, here’s a little something for you.

It’s not a feel-good entry. Not by a long shot.

Right before Easter, my aunt died, thanks to a fifty year smoking habit which culminated in COPD and emphysema. It was a painful, horrible end and she spent her last two weeks on a ventilator, coughing up bloody bits of her lungs before finally literally drowning in her own mucous. So by all means, guys, keep on smoking. Her very last communication was a handwritten note which read: “I’d like to go now, please.” Her doctors brought in her children, and she passed away.

But it’s another death I want to tell you about today, on the happened when I was 23 years old during my first position as a professor. It was Spring semester and the weather was just starting to turn, and one night I was curled up in my favorite wicker chair grading essays when the phone rang. It was Helena, one of my favorite students. (Yes, I know teachers aren’t supposed to have “favorites.” We do. Get over it.)

Helena sounded shaken. “Professor BeowulfGirl,” she said, nervously. “I have some bad news. Wes Hockin is dead.”

Wes Hockin was a quiet, red-haired boy who sat near the back of the room. He was a gifted writer, though he never said much. Stunned, I just said, “what?”

Helena told me the story. It seemed that Wes had gone rock-climbing. In the middle of the night. Stoned out of his mind on pot. Alone. He had neared the top of the rock, then missed. That was all. He had simply fallen off the rock and broken his neck.

(It is important to note here that when one attends a Teaching University to learn how to be a professor, they almost never teach you how to handle a classroom when a student dies in medias res.) Helena wanted to know what she should do. I told her to tell no one and that I would make an announcement in tomorrow’s class.

The next day, I strolled somberly in and asked Paul, a boy who sat near the door, to close it. I cleared the gravel from my throat and said something along the lines that there had been a death in the class. I pretty much repeated verbatim what Helena had told me. My voice was shaking, and I felt very, very young.

The students sat there, staring at me like frozen food. Wes’s chair was conspicuously empty. I announced there would be no lecture that day, but they were free to freewrite about it if they wanted to.

Surprisingly, they all wanted to. The overwhelming emotion was anger and rage, followed closely by confusion and sorrow. I felt so damn useless—in three years of Doctoral Candidacy School, they had never prepared me for this.

The entire class wanted to go to the wake, which was held two days later. Since only Helena knew how to get to the funeral home, we all piled in our cars and followed her. On the way there, I kept rehearsing what I would say to Wes’s parents.

The funeral home was Standing Room Only. There were dozens and dozens of college-age kids there, all looking as freaked out as we were. I had my little moment up at the casket, and it dawned on me that I had never seen anything so utterly devoid of life as Wes's body was right then.

I managed my way through the “receiving line” and shook all the hands that were proffered. I wedged myself into an armchair and began saying the rosary.

I was so proud of my students—they were well behaved, appropriately mournful, and while I was looking at them, I heard a strange sound coming from the parking lot.

I stepped out of the funeral home and took a look around. A group of about eight of my students was huddled together on the porch singing “Amazing Grace” in a beautiful tenor voice. No one had asked them, no one had prompted them. And then finally, a tear rolled down my face. I was so glad to at last be feeling something—anything—that I just grabbed the nearest student to me and hugged her.

Several weeks later, I wrote a long letter to Wes’s parents, re-introducing myself and saying what a pleasure he was to have in class. It dawned on me that Billy Joel was probably right after all.

Only the good die young.

Next time: Hopefully something more cheerful.