Monday, February 02, 2015


by J J Cohen

Last night Uncle Jack died. Loud, full of jokes, speaking things true but never spoken by my Bostonian family, he terrified and fascinated me as a child. When old enough to travel to California and see him in his element, I came to admire his obsessions: "local color," especially as displayed at out of the way diners; sea lions basking on Pacific rocks; pasta drowning in red sauce; wandering the world (he and my aunt lived on ships for a long while); arguing; forgiving; speaking things that were true but not often spoken. Jack died in a hospital of pneumonia.

Jack is the second uncle I have recently lost. Having just recovered from pneumonia, Bob died of a heart attack in late December. Born in Washington DC, Uncle Bob still seemed to me as Maine a person as you could find, jolly and good hearted. He was especially beloved by my son and daughter for having introduced them to red velvet ice cream. Bob spent his life as a social worker and substance abuse counselor, contracted by paper mills in those remote parts of the state people who only vacation in Maine do not know. Before they closed, these mills generated for a rural population money not easily spent. Drug use flourished. Uncle Bob saved people from themselves. Men and women are alive now because he spent his life in a job that paid little but accomplished much.

Just before New Year's Eve my cousin John killed himself. Uncle Jack, his father, was hospitalized shortly afterwards. His death last night must surely have been from the effect on the lungs of a broken heart. To outlive one's child must be unbearable. I cannot imagine.

But I do sometimes imagine: every time I read the poem Pearl, with its father who will not abandon his grief just because his child is in cold heaven. Or when I read this essay by Dan Kline, that binds medieval text and present sorrow.

I did not know of my cousin John's long struggles with depression until after he committed suicide. He kept his sorrow well guarded.

I wish he had loosened that guard. I would have told him that I think often about sorrow's hold. When I was in sixth grade, I hated both school and the world so much I almost ended my life. I never forget that moment. Three GW students took their lives last spring. Those deaths haunted my courses into the fall. In "Medieval Literature," on the day I taught Pearl, several students who had known the latest young man to die could not bear to attend class. We sat in silence for a long time, and dismissed early.

I used to believe that a college classroom was a bounded space: you shut the door at 11 AM, and you have your time together, and then off the students go at half past noon. You hold some office hours in case they needed help with the Middle English, or carry a form to be signed. That's professionalism. Now I talk to students about stress, depression, suicide, self care. I tell them it can seem as if there is no one paying attention, no one who will notice, but they are wrong. When I was a graduate student learning to teach, I was told that my job is pedagogy, not thinking about mental wellness. It took me years to realize the starkness of the boundary I'd internalized, the distance it creates. As the face of the institution in the classroom, teachers should be bridge makers, door holders, companions and allies. I've become good friends with our university's director of counseling and can walk anyone in trouble over to his office, knowing they will have attention, care. I do not want to lose anyone.

"And do you really think you can save them?" My friend's question was not hostile. It arose from my telling her how I had changed my classroom practice to open a space for more affective interchange than previously allowed, a space where a student might ask for help, where a student knows that even in sorrow they can loosen their guard. Oh, I get it: we are teachers, not saviors, and we should not convince ourselves that we are something we have not been trained to be. To do so is dangerous and it is not our job. We are not mental health professionals, we are intellectuals who train, assess, inspire within secure boundaries. I've heard some version of these statements for years. I believe them. But affect is integral to cognition. Students are not ID numbers taking up a seat for a semester. It's OK to say (isn't it?) that a kind of love motivates me to work for and with my students, that vulnerability is built into any good classroom, even when we refuse to see its workings.

No, I cannot save anyone. What hubris. But if I fail it won't be because I have neglected to prop open a door, to offer to companion a student on the walk to the counseling center, to create a small space of shelter within the classroom, to loosen a little the tight structures that make universities so relentless.


Heide Estes said...

Jeffrey, thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful post, Jeffrey. So sorry to hear about all of your loss recently. I was a grad student at Ohio State University when you gave a talk there about 7-8 years ago, and you mentioned then the difficulty you have in teaching "Pearl" because of how sad and poignant you find the father's grief over his dead child. To this day, that has been one of the defining moments of my academic career and one I will never forget because you reminded me that even at the advanced levels of literary study, it is still okay to admit to be profoundly moved and affected emotionally by the literature we teach.