Ever since I heard he died – since I got the texts, I mean – I have been ashamed, in some small way, of my reaction. It wasn’t even my full reaction, but just that initial millisecond, before confirming the news in my wakeful state, while I was still bleary-eyed. But still, I had a thought that feels ugly.
What does it mean when you wake up to news that your perfectly healthy, middle-aged professor died suddenly of a heart attack, and you wonder: what happens now with the ungraded final essays? The ones you complained about to your friends while demanding you did not care about them at all. The ones you referred to as the “nine pages of BS that stand between me and freedom.” I guess I’m “free” now, huh?
What happens to the essays? And what does it mean when you catch yourself thinking something so ugly?
You said the prompts were too vague, yet too particular. He asked something about the role of literature as an internal critic to society, and another about gender – you thought that one was especially reductive, and you said as much in the essay you begrudgingly wrote like you were pulling a tooth for each word. The last question began “suppose you are in a conversation with an intelligent friend or peer who has no background in reading Israeli literature…” and you cringed every moment until you hit “submit” at 2am.
You hated his essay prompts. Except now he’s dead; so it feels wrong to still hate his essay prompts. A very tiny part of you ponders, “had I known, maybe I could have just not written the final essays at all…” What does it mean when you catch yourself thinking this way, if only for a half-beat, as if inadvertently catching yourself at a frighteningly unflattering angle on a self-facing camera?
You try to flood your mind with positive thoughts and images, and they are all true: meaningful discussions about the pioneer experience in pre-State Palestine/Israel, the role of collective memory and inherited trauma, pacifism and martyrdom, et cetera. He really was so wise. He loved to hear himself speak. I don’t blame him — his insights were fascinating. We knew to say the things he wanted to hear, to reiterate sometimes even, his own opinions published in book reviews and journal articles online. He was a soft grader, but wrote scathing feedback before scrawling that A- at the very end.
I was in this man’s final class. The last class he ever taught, in his whole life. I hardly got through any of the readings fully. For what it’s worth, they are nearly all riveting and rich works outside of an assigned context; there was just never enough time. I want to apologize to my professor for making excuses. He probably knew how little I knew or read, how much I was humoring him and fighting back a revealing smile. Maybe he was just playing along too.
I wonder if he got the chance to read my certified-BS essays, and if he did, what he thought of them. Could he tell how little I cared, writing the final essays at the threshold of graduation? Was he disappointed in my mediocrity, my lack of passion like his? I made fun of his monotone expression behind his back; the truth is, maybe there are just different modes of passion. He had it in his own way.
How will this affect my final grade? I’m just curious, really. I question these questions, meditate on my motives, set sincere intentions to pay a shiva visit to his family, however awkward it may be. Death is more awkward than small talk, albeit by a small margin. I resented the seminar, but loved his mind. I plan to catch up on the books I skimmed hastily during wax appointments and taxi rides, to reverently take in Amos Oz and A.B Yehoshua with the respect they deserve. This time I won’t cut corners, and not just because I need the extra credit.
And so, I say thank you, in the absence of something more meaningful. I imagine looking back on this more poignantly one day. It’s still too soon. I’m still waiting on my final grades, the ones that don’t matter anymore. I’ve graduated and my professor died unexpectedly. This was not on the syllabus.