Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Death of a Colleague

Today a teacher at my school died. A couple of weeks from retirement--after 25 or 30 years of teaching--he had a mild heart attack. He was expected to recover. He passed away quietly sitting in his back yard.

He was not a good teacher. I would have to say, objectively, he was a bad teacher, one who did not teach his students the skills they needed to succeed at the next level of education.

Just this morning, our department was planning, half-heartedly, some "nice" things to do for him at the end-of-the-year faculty luncheon. Although he was not planning to return to school, he would return for the luncheon; he was the type of man who needed that sense of closure, or more to the point, to hear nice things said about him.

Today, people were talking about having a memorial for him on campus somewhere. I understand, I think. A comrade has fallen. It's true; no matter what you think of how he measured up as a teacher or what kind of man he was, the fact remains that he was one of us. And death quakes the living. Some need a way to fight back, I suppose, and so they reach for flowers and memorials and each other. A memorial would be fine--but honestly it would not be a testomonial to the man or the teacher. "He was a nice guy but a horrible teacher." I doubt anybody will profane the dead in this way. Thus, this monument will be for the living, a premptive strike against our own deaths. One teacher reacted to his death by saying, "We are going to fucking die here." Yes, we will. He was talking about this high school, but widen the scope and it's still true. We're all going to die here, there or wherever. And so we will build a memorial to the nice man who had a hard life and wasted the time of many of his students because we are all going to die and now one more of us is dead and what else is there to do?

I'll leave you (the two people reading this) with a poem by Stephen Dunn which seems appropriate.


On the Death of a Colleague

She taught theater, so we gathered 
in the theater.
We praised her voice, her knowledge,
how good she was
with Godot and just four months later
with Gigi.
She was fifty.  The problem in the liver.
Each of us recalled
an incident in which she'd been kind
or witty.
I told how she'd placed her hand
where the failure was,
taught me to speak from my diaphragm.
I was on stage
and heard myself wishing to be impressive.
Someone else spoke
of her cats and no one spoke
of her face
or the last few parties.
The fact was
I had avoided her for months.
It was a student's turn to speak, a sophomore,
one of her actors.
She was a drunk, he said, often came to class
reeking.


Sometimes he couldn't look at her, the blotches,
the awful puffiness.
And yet she was a great teacher,
he loved her,
but thought someone should say
what everyone knew
because she didn't die by accident.


Everyone was crying.  Everyone was crying and it
was almost over now.
The remaining speaker, an historian, said he'd cut
his speech short.
And the Chairman stood up as if by habit,
said something about loss
and thanked us for coming.  None of us moved
except some students-
to the student who'd spoken, and then others
moved to him, across dividers,
down aisles, to his side of the stage.

2 Comments:

At 11:25 AM, Blogger 3Jake said...

That was nice, baby. Are we all going to get drunk and jump on Ken now?

 
At 5:39 PM, Blogger cmaters said...

why is Ken going to get jumped?

The poem is wonderful.

Your thoughts are clear and contain much truth.

But, you and the poet emphasize only the negative. Why bother with truth after death of us average folks? Within all of us, we have a spectrum. We do some good, we do some un-good (often by laziness or by accident and the hell with those who do it on purpose).
After the death, remembering the positive reminds us what we want to bring to others. Remembering the negative? We focused on that while he lived. What is the point now?
The memorials are silly but reinforce our confusion about death.

I should blog what I told Jake afterwards in case she cops out on me.
When I die, I want no memorial, no somber looks of oh shit, what do we do about this.
I want party-time at which you can do nothing but drink good wine and focus on whatever good I did and none of the bad. I don't want any damn postings telling me I was a bad teacher.
I want debauchery in celebration of my surviving as long as I did and getting a few laughs more than I thought possible.

Then, you focus on my family. Tell my lovely spouse that I was perfect even though she knows the exact opposite. Lie like there was no tomorrow.
Next, take care of my son. He is at the mercy of society. Unless society changes direction, he is in big trouble.
Finally, change society. Up the Revolution!
That is all I ask.
No big deal and much easier than a plaque next to a garden.
Do you know how many plaques to dead students we have lying in the corners of this school? egads.

 

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