It is true that I am still teaching by way of the computer, but this is for my many years of classroom students!
When I was seventeen, I lost my good friend Paul Loucks to a logging accident in the southern Adirondacks. I buried the event somewhere inside and thirty-one years later wrote a song about Paul. Nearly four years ago now, one of my former students, Eric Anderson, took his life. Eric was big Teddy bear of a man whose unexpected grace and guile on the basketball court surprised many an opponent. Despite his imposing appearance, Eric was a gentle and sensitive one. He was an amazing teacher—it has taken me until now to begin to come to grips with his loss. This letter is the upshot of my reflections on Eric and on all of you who have been my “students” over these many years.
To my students,
I always called you my students, but I never once thought of you that way. You were always possible friends in a world that was always unfolding. I always looked out at your faces and saw my own hopes and fears staring back at me. Who am I? What will I become? Must I always fit in?
I have learned as much from you all as I ever did from my mentors and teachers—and I had good ones! I have always known that I will learn a text best by making myself teach it. And in classrooms from Ohio to Texas I learned that my best, most spontaneous, and most sincere teachers were there every day in those classrooms. You taught me the pointlessness of pretension and the meaninglessness of professionalism. Somehow, as with rooms full of old friends, we worked on the issues of the day—your issues and mine, and those we shared. So many times you surprised me with ways of seeing the world I had neither considered nor encountered.
Now I am closing in on my last days of teaching—and I am still learning every day. Strangely, I hardly feel much different from those first days teaching a class full of “wanna be” doctors in the hills of Pennsylvania. I learned that many of them were wanna be doctors only because their parents wanted them to be. Their existential questions were aching for a place to speak out, and they found it in our classroom or in office chats. Learning who we are is a human phenomenon—and perhaps the most significant of our lives.
There have been so many fun and important moments—so many twists, turns, and tossings. Smiles crease my face at the thought of all the things we’ve been through. I want to name each of you; I want to tease you and chide you—for working too hard, or not hard enough. I want just one more time to be surprised by each of you—and I want to know where you are and what happened—the dark and the beautiful. I want to hear about the roads you have travelled. You have no idea how your absences from my life have left patches of loneliness. When you each walked out of my life, some of you forever, my heart was heavy, even as I smiled, wished you well, hugged you or shook your hand. Sending you off to life was always so difficult—the loss of your presence was intense. That is, perhaps, why I have chased a few of you around the world since those classroom days.
For me, teaching has always been more confessional than professional. I learned a lot of shit—details, facts, arguments, histories—to serve as appetizers. But my main course was always in our conversations—our conspiracies about life’s ways—our open wounds, our fears, our incredible dreams and hopes to be chased with our energies and never captured in full—always more dreams and hopes. I confess to you now that I fell in love with every one of you. My heart was invested in your well being and I often lay awake at night hoping you might find some peace and comfort—hoping you might find a road that felt like home. A life of cherishing so many lovers has its risks and dangers—but also the deepest rewards. Seeing so many of you find those roads has been one ongoing celebration. Would be lawyers becoming professional comedians and would be actors becoming lawyers. However distant we may have become, I would have you all know that my love has not abated.
You also know how much I hated academic bureaucracies and professions—so much private ambition, so much pretension. It always seemed like those folks were trying to break up my love affair with teaching and my cherishing of each of you. They assigned me bullshit that took me away from my time with you. I resented that—I still resent it. And the “professionals” trying to tell me how much their research improved their teaching. Bullshit. So far as I could see, they merely recited their little professional “positions.” In my world, my writing was the beneficiary of my conversations with you. You essentially wrote my essays and books in conjunction with my conversations with an array of dead authors from Plato to Margaret Fuller to Henry Bugbee.
Classrooms—that’s where we usually met. But in so many cases our learning together occurred beyond those rooms. How much political orientation did I learn on basketball courts? So much beauty I learned on aimless walks and talks in coffee shops. And so much in watching you perform. So much music I felt in bars and coffee houses. So much endurance I learned on long runs and cycling trips. Car rides, and chance encounters in grocery stores.
A hollowness haunts me now. This last semester of “being a teacher.” It is my turn to walk out the door for the last time. But as I put the chalk back in the tray and shut down the lights for the last time, looking back into the darkened room, I want you all to know that I will not quit. I have other roads ahead—and each of them is written in learning and teaching. So, send me a poem on the wind, note from Antarctica, your children’s drawings—or their books and successes. My love for you all has not abated—thanks for sharing your time and being with me, however briefly….
Thanks to Monster for the photos!