Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A Proustian Bargain

Warning: very long post

Is it wrong to wish someone dead? Someone you love and admire?

I went to an exclusive boarding school, and there I met a fantastic professor who deserved to have had a Dead Poet's Society-type of movie made about him. He was funny, charismatic, intelligent, obscure, and striking. He was a beloved character, in the Dickensian sense of the word, on our campus and in our daily lives. In my early years at school, I was intimidated by his reputation, but certainly knew who he was. As a Junior I was encouraged to take a course from him before I left school from a student who could do nothing but sing his praises.

The first few days of school we never had classes. It was a week to settle into dorms, meet with your academic advisor, and try out for fall sports teams. This professor's only offering that fall was a Hemingway and Fitzgerald course. I hated Hemingway, liked Fitzgerald, and decided to sign up. I was excited and surprised to get a slot in the twelve-student class.

The first day our teacher handed out the course syllabus, a book list, and a questionnaire. He told us to fill out the questionnaire in class, which we did in silence. One question remains with me, "What do you expect from this class?" Being a perfect snot, I answered, "Not much. I like Fitzgerald, I hate Hemingway, and I was told to take a course from you before I graduated. Two out of three's not bad." (He commented in small neat letters when he returned our questionnaires later that week, "A challenge. Feel you are deserving of an A already?") The syllabus indicated that 50% of our grade would be based on classroom participation and small essays, 20% on the final exam, 20% on 3 large essays, and the final 10% on sartorial resplendence.

For The Sun Also Rises he assigned us the Book of Ecclesiastes. The next day he walked slowly into the classroom dressed in his standard outfit of a black turtleneck and dark dress slacks, carrying a worn Bible. He walked to his desk at the front of the class, opened the Bible and began to read aloud, with no preamble or explanation. At about verse 4 he looked up from the Bible, scanned the room, and softly said, "Shall I break into song?" When we read Tender is the Night he again, without explanation, turned up in class wearing a full varsity football uniform. He handed out lyrics of the fightsongs of various Ivy League schools and instructed us to sing them as loudly and as boisterously as we could. Later he told us it was to get us into the proper "Rah! Rah! Princeton!" mode in which Fitzgerald lived.

I could tell you so many stories about him, like the time I locked myself out of my room after 9pm and how after my housemother called him for advice (He was also a dean on campus.), he appeared out of the mist on his burbling black BMW motorcycle. He walked with me to the back of the house, asked me to point out which window was mine, and nodded. Soon he was striding off over the neighboring field. Then he turned and called me, "You got yourself into this. Come help me break into the carpentry shop." We did, and he "borrowed" a ladder, which he then climbed up to my window to unlock my door. (I know that in order to climb onto my desk he had to move my illegal coffee maker and illegal hot plate, but he never saw fit to mention it.) I could tell you more of these, but that would only make this post that much longer. Suffice to say, I felt honored to have known him, and I worked very hard to gain his respect. (Later in the year I took a Flannery O'Connor course from him. The comment on my final five page essay was "Perspicacious.")

Nonetheless, the memory of this great and quirky man is now painful. And I really think it would be easier if he had died.

More than ten years after I graduated, my beloved professor, to whom my senior class dedicated the yearbook, was convicted of hundreds of counts of possession of child pornography, displays of child pornography, and an attempted aggravated felonious assault on a twelve year old boy.

I want to make it thoroughly clear that I do not think he was innocent of these charges, nor that he was railroaded. (Although it is odd that he did not act out this way on campus. The administration asked current and former students repeatedly for any evidence of sexual assault and found none. I only say that this is odd. It is not to say that he is innocent. He isn't.) This is not an apology for his behavior. I think he shattered lives.

But I cannot shake my memories of him. My warm memories of him.

I cannot shake the dread that if he had stayed on campus, at some point I would have visited him, bringing my small children, and would have endangered them.

I cannot shake the absolutely sure knowledge that I have known an evil person.

And I cannot make my horror at his current behavior align with the man I thought I knew. Of course, he enjoyed playing a part, acting as a high school varsity football player, for example. So I am assured that he played the part of quirky professor well.

He made the news again this week--a motion, an appeal--and I find that I sincerely wish he had died. I don't want his death out of retribution for his sins. I don't want him to die now. I wish that he had died years before his control snapped and he tried to abduct that poor child. I wish it for purely selfish reasons.

Then I could maintain the memory of him, the memory of my old school, in that bright, autumnal, firey light the development office captures so well in every cover of the newest "Please send us money" brochure. The wide green expanses of the lawns, the bright orange oak trees, the small classrooms in historic brick buildings with white trim, the engaging brilliant professors opening young minds: all these are part of the bouquet of memory. And I want to hold tight to those pristine memories.

Maybe Fitzgerald held onto Princeton because it had a pristine aura as well. Maybe I can see that longing in Fitzgerald for what was perfectly familiar because I'm predisposed to have that same longing too.

And maybe I know that because a brilliant, engaging professor took the time to show me how flawed and talented F. Scott was.

I wished he could have died so that I could have written him a eulogy.


Megan Frampton said...

Wow. Incredible story, and you *have* written a eulogy, of sorts, for the memory you had of him.

Just wow. Good writing, too.

Kristie (J) said...

What a touching and sad story. Disillusionment can be so painful can't it.

CindyS said...

I have no words.


meljean brook said...

My favorite uncle? Same thing, almost exactly.

Yeah. Sigh.