A couple summers ago, I was tasked with coming up with a toast for Besfrinn’s wedding. At the time, I was swimming laps a lot at a local pool. Each day leading up to the wedding, I would backstroke and think about what I could say that would pay tribute to this incredible person who had meant so much to me. Immersing myself in that water brought on some inspiring memories and truly lofty ideals about fidelity and the miracle of friendship, but when I got out of the pool and sat down to write the toast, I became overwhelmed with assigning words to a relationship that I treasure intensely. Its remarkability makes me, interestingly, speechless.
Today is similar. I woke up around four this morning with those familiar feelings of incompetence. I have wanted to write about Dr. O for so long because his presence in my life for my four years of college and beyond was monumental. When I was feeling unmotivated to concentrate and excel in school for the sake of literature itself, he was the person I aimed to please. When I needed a friendly face who would encourage me to keep reading and striving for the next big thing when my old pal Self Doubt paid a visit, he was that person. He was that living symbol of words and inexhaustible patience. Back then, I cared more about what he – a 60ish but lithe Canadian man who kept his Norton Anthology together with rubber bands – thought about me than my husband who I met during those years. After all, B’s Norton Anthology had only been read once all the way through.
So what can I say?
I’ll start with something he said:
If you’re going to travel between England and France, don’t take the hovercraft because you can’t see anything.
On at least a weekly basis, Dr. O would jot a map of Great Britain on the chalkboard in one fluid motion so we would have an idea of the precise origin of the piece we were reading for British Survey. Over and over and over his chalk would hit the board in some kind of pre-Internet supercut and what resulted was a shape that looked like a rabbit eating a disintegrating pumpkin. But we got it, and we learned to respect that shape because his own fascination and love for the island it symbolized (if only tangentially) bled into everything he said. Thus, when traveling there, don’t take the hovercraft because you want to see it all. These trips that we didn’t even know we were planning were being curated by Dr. O.
There was no “if.” Only “when.”
We also learned to respect our Norton Anthologies. Dr. O always advised us to be active readers, and in the same way that he advised us on the finer points of these literary trips we were all going to take eventually, he informed us that twenty and thirty years down the line, we’d appreciate the underlined passages and notes we had made as undergrads in our books. The idea of selling them back to the bookstore once the course was completed wasn’t even on his radar. We’d keep our books and whip them out on cold winter nights to read Beowulf or Donne or Spenser for our pleasure and edification. His own copy was completely spent from use, the words it contained stronger than the binding holding them together. He’d only bring to class the section that held the reading for the day. He didn’t need to, though, as he had committed to memory every single important passage dating back to before the Norman Invasion.
My respect for him grew even after the classes I took with him were through. He had such a kindly demeanor and kept in touch with me as I started taking 300- and 400-level classes. I will never forget the day classes resumed for the fall my sophomore year. My dad had died only weeks before, but Dr. O found me before my French class began and gave me his condolences. I don’t know how he knew. There are a handful of moments that I can recall very vividly during that jarring time, and that was one of them. It is a result of that sloppily emotional semester that I don’t remember even one word he said in that French classroom that day, but I am still left with such an incredible feeling of comfort when I think back on it. At that point, I knew that I could not only respect him but also trust him.
I would often get up early in the morning so that I could meet him in his office before the day’s classes began. Sometimes he would have a little bowl of instant oatmeal that he’d prepared for himself in the School of Arts break room, and he would always ask me if he could get me anything. I was a little embarrassed telling him that I’d already had a danish and a coffee from Starbucks because such breakfast fare seemed pretentious and phony when discussed in a room where one entire wall was covered in books that were all older than me. I’d talk to him about what I was reading and where I should apply to graduate school. Being a devout Lassalian, he hated the idea of me going to a Jesuit graduate school, which I ended up doing when I went to Loyola. The meetings were often a lot like therapy sessions, with me talking a lot (surprising, I know) and him just listening and then reminding me that I was doing OK.
It won’t come as much of a surprise that B was just as smitten with him as I was those years ago. Everyone had to take Dr. O’s class, himself included. Before we left for Korea, B and I called up Dr. O to see if we could meet him while we were in town so we could catch up and tell him about the next big step in our lives. As we gathered around a table at a local fish fry – which, I should add, he suggested – no fewer than three people came to our table to say hello to Dr. O. One was a rotund middle-aged man who I think said he worked at a car dealership. One was a prominent news anchor in Memphis who we recognized the instant we walked in. The third was a woman probably only a few years older than us who was there with her young family. After each left, Dr. O would tell us that they were former students of his just like us.
As we drove home that night, B and I agreed that even though these people were all so different, we had something in common with them all.
Should we ever find ourselves on the same tour group to the UK, we will all know not to take the hovercraft.
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