Dying to Teach

Jeffrey Berman always encourages "risky writing" by students -- and explains what happened when he shared with them the most personal of works he could have written.

May 22, 2007

For several years I have been teaching personal writing courses in which students share with classmates self-disclosing essays on a wide variety of topics that are rarely discussed in the classroom, including eating disorders, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and suicide. Such "risky writing" -- the title of my 2001 book -- involves confronting painful or shameful emotions and requires a safe, empathic classroom atmosphere so that students who write about traumatic topics are not retraumatized. In March 2004, I decided to read aloud to my students the most personal writing of my life: a eulogy for my beloved wife.

Two years earlier it would have been unimaginable to believe that Barbara, who had been in excellent health, and who could have been a poster child for living an active, fulfilling life, would soon be diagnosed with one of the most dreaded diseases: pancreatic cancer. She had none of the risk factors except being over the age of 50. She appeared decades younger than her age; when our daughters were in college, she looked like their oldest sister rather than their mother. She never abused her body: never smoked, never drank excessively, exercised regularly, had annual physical exams, and always maintained a healthy weight. Perhaps equally important, there was no history of cancer on either side of her family: nearly all of her relatives lived to their 80s or 90s, including her parents and their many siblings. And so when Barbara was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer -- a redundancy since nearly all pancreatic cancer is metastatic by the time it is detected -- on August 12, 2002, one day after our 34th wedding anniversary, she was given less than a year to live.

Fear, shock, and horror followed the grim diagnosis, and for the next several months we were in and out of the hospital, undergoing tests, consultations, and treatments. There is no cure for pancreatic cancer -- it is one of the most virulent cancers, with a 99 percent mortality rate, and the standard treatment, chemotherapy, works only for a few months, if that long. From the moment of her diagnosis we were on a roller coaster -- there is no avoiding this overused metaphor. Unlike amusement roller coasters, in which thrill-seekers know in advance that they are paying for the illusion of danger, we knew that this ride would plunge Barbara lower and lower until its final crash. There were, to be sure, a few unexpected highs, when the disease seemed to be retreating, thanks to an experimental pancreatic cancer vaccine that Barbara took for 18 weeks. The vaccine supercharged the chemotherapy that followed, giving her several additional months of life; but when she was forced to end the chemotherapy after six months, because her white blood cell count was dangerously low, the cancer spread with a vengeance throughout her pancreas, liver, and abdomen, and all hope of remission vanished. Slowly and imperceptibly our attitude toward death changed from that of a dreaded adversary, to be avoided at all cost, to a welcome ally, signaling the end of the nearly 20-month ordeal.

When our doctors told us that Barbara was close to the end, in January 2004, I decided to write a eulogy. I could have waited until her actual death, but I didn't know whether I could write a eulogy in two or three days, the time interval, according to Jewish custom, between death and burial. Besides, I wanted as much time as possible to write what would surely be the most important speech of my life. And so I wrote a first draft that I continued to revise until her funeral three months later. I wanted to memorialize the woman who had been the center of my universe for four decades. She was not only my wife but also my best friend and soulmate, the person who had transformed my life from the moment we began dating.

I wrote the eulogy to celebrate Barbara's life rather than dwell on the wrenching details of her death. I wanted to bring smiles to the mourners, but I knew that my words would inevitably bring tears to their eyes: striking the right tonal balance would be a challenge. And so I decided to begin with light reminiscences, which would allow me to maintain my composure, and then I would move slowly toward the final months of Barbara's life, a subject that would make greater emotional demands on everyone in the funeral chapel. Here is part of the eulogy:

Barbara and I met in the fall of 1963 in our freshman English class at the University of Buffalo. She was not yet 17 years old. For me, though not for her, it was love at first sight: I couldn't take my eyes off her long flowing hair, green eyes, high cheek bones, olive complexion, and delicate nose. She had a natural, unselfconscious beauty that never faded, not even after her illness. Two of the black-and-white photos I took of her in 1967 now hang on my office wall at the university; students who walk into my office invariably comment on her exotic features. Barbara and I could not have been more different in class: I spoke incessantly, enraptured by my own words, while she remained silent like the sphinx, which only increased her mystery to me.

Our relationship began inauspiciously. Our first date was November 22, 1963, a day that no one of our generation will ever forget. After classes were cancelled because of President Kennedy's assassination, we decided to see a movie; we were among a handful of people in the theater as we watched Laurence Olivier play Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. On our third date I walked her back to the dormitory and asked if I could kiss her goodnight. "No" was her immediate reply. I turned around and left, vowing never to ask her out again. A few months later I broke that promise, and we began seeing each other. When I later told her how hurt I was by her rejection, she replied, "It was a stupid question: you should have just kissed me."

Everything Barbara made was a work of art, and she was meticulous to a fault. Her eye invariably spotted misweaves and imperfections, and she demanded of others what she expected of herself, which was nothing short of perfection. It is not easy living with a person whose standards are so high; she was as mechanically inclined as I am mechanically declined, and I became dependent upon her ability to fix anything. She could repair faulty wiring, broken toilets, temperamental boilers, cracked floor tile, and leaky faucets. By contrast, I was hopeless. Her favorite story about me was the time I spent two hours replacing a head light in our car, only to discover that I had replaced the wrong light. Once in exasperation I said to her, "You're such a perfectionist that I don't understand why you married me." Without hesitation she replied, "I didn't think about it very much." Lucky for me that she didn't.

Barbara and I did not spend much time talking about the unfairness of her illness. We had no regrets about anything except that we did not have more time together. She felt little anger and no bitterness. She died during what would have been the best time in her life, when her children were grown up, happily married to wonderful men, successful in their careers, and beginning families of their own. She delighted in our new grandson Nate the Great, who filled her heart with joy.

Premature death always raises the most fundamental religious and existential questions, and each person will answer these questions differently. Amidst tragedy, those with strong religious faith may have emotional resources lacking in those without religious faith. I wish I could believe that Barbara is now in a better world, that there is a reason for her death, and that one day I will be reunited with her. What I do believe is that she will always be alive to those of us who were privileged to know her. I want to end by quoting a passage from a recent film based on Charles Dickens's novel Nicholas Nickleby: "In every life, no matter how full or empty one's purse, there is tragedy. It is the one promise life always fulfills. Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes and to add to other people's store of it." Barbara was one of those rare people who increased the store of happiness in the world.

With Barbara's approval, I decided to read the eulogy to my writing class, not only as a trial run, but, more importantly, as a way to offer my students my own example of risky writing. My students had been sharing their personal writings with me throughout the semester, and I wanted to reciprocate. I have discovered in every personal writing class that self-disclosure begets self-disclosure. Moreover, I believe in the adage that authors write best from their own experience. Here was a real-life experience in which all of my students would find themselves one day: confronting the specter of death from the point of view of the dying person or the caregiver. Here was an opportunity to describe, to others and myself, how and why Barbara has meant the world to me, and how my world would be forever changed by her death. Here was an opportunity to put into practice the adage I give to my writing students every class: show instead of tell, use concrete details, avoid clichés, compress your language, revise until every sentence is grammatically correct and stylistically graceful, and make the reader see your story. Above all, I wanted to write truthfully, which means not only engaging the minds and hearts of readers but also describing my wife without distorting or idealizing her life. It is always problematic when writers are too close to their subjects, when they are so much "in love with" their characters that they cannot see their human failings. I was indeed in love with my subject, but my challenge was to allow my students to see Barbara as I have seen her, and to convey to them, as I would later convey to the mourners attending her funeral, the special qualities about her life.

Most of my colleagues knew about Barbara's illness, but I hadn't informed anyone in the Expository Writing course I taught in the spring of 2004. I told them in early March, when our doctors told us that Barbara's death was imminent. I announced at the beginning of the class that I wanted to reserve the last 20 minutes of the hour for reading an essay that I had just written. The students seemed mildly puzzled, but no one said anything. The class proceeded as usual, and then my turn came. In a quiet, measured voice I revealed that my wife was terminally ill with cancer and close to death. I told them that I wanted to share with them the eulogy that I hoped I would be able to deliver at her funeral. Anyone who wished to leave class before hearing the eulogy could do so, I added. Finally I said that the class would be over when I finished reading the eulogy. And with that, I began.

During the reading I didn't lift my eyes from the copy of the eulogy on my desk. I didn't dare look up, fearful that I would be unable to continue reading if I saw anyone teary-eyed. I could hear several students from different sides of the classroom fighting back tears, but apart from that there was eerie silence, quite different from the ubiquitous white noise of the classroom. On three occasions I could hear my voice falter and break, but each time I paused, regained my composure, and resumed the reading. I thanked my students when I finished, and everyone quietly walked out of the classroom.

It was difficult to read aloud the eulogy, but afterwards I felt better, the way nearly all of my students feel after reading aloud their own emotionally charged essays. I felt exhausted and drained from the reading but also relieved, for no longer did I need to conceal Barbara's illness from my students. Finding the words to express my feelings, and then reading those words aloud, helped me to remain in control. My students' silence struck me as profoundly respectful, but I couldn't be sure how they felt unless I found a way to ask them. I knew from years of teaching experience that most students are reluctant to speak in class, even in self-disclosing courses. I wanted them to have the time to reflect on their feelings, which is why I ruled out an in-class essay, and I also wanted them to have the opportunity to remain anonymous so that they could be as truthful as possible. I did not want to require them to write about their feelings, and so I asked them to write an anonymous, optional essay describing how they felt about hearing the eulogy.

Fifteen of the 22 students who heard me read the eulogy turned in essays. They were generally well written, containing fewer grammatical and stylistic errors than in earlier writings. The disclosure of my wife's illness stunned all 15. They felt that the eulogy gave them insight into my personal life and that I was no longer simply a "teacher" to them. Twelve reported that they cried during the reading. Nearly all indicated that they could hear the emotionality of my voice as I read the eulogy and that it would not have been as powerful an experience if they had read the eulogy to themselves.

The eulogy was painful for all of the students. Many felt implicated in my story. I don't know whether it would be accurate to say that my students were traumatized, but some reported feeling physically as well as psychologically distressed during the reading. Some students reported that they found themselves thinking about class for the rest of the day: "My eyes precipitated and tears split my cheeks in halves as the sadness irrigated its way to the bottom of my face. I left class screaming at God in my head. Wondering why God does the things he does."

How did I feel about my students' tears? My purpose was not to move them to tears -- tearful responses are not necessarily "deeper" or more meaningful than dry-eyed responses. If we judged a story by the quantity of tears it produces in readers or viewers, any television soap opera would be a more profound aesthetic experience than King Lear. Nevertheless, I did want to "move" my students, and as the word implies, I sought to transport them to a different emotional realm, one that involved nothing less than the contemplation of life and death.

The adage, "mourners cry for themselves, not for the deceased," is a half-truth. We cry both for ourselves and for those whom we have lost. The most painful aspect of caring for Barbara was watching her suffer; after her death, the most painful part of mourning was imagining all that she will miss in life. My tears were as much for Barbara's sake as for my own; and my students' tears were as much for Barbara and me as for themselves.

Thirteen of the 15 students implied that the eulogy was appropriate for the writing class. They appreciated the trust I placed in them and implied that they would now place greater trust in me. They felt for the first time an equality in the teacher-student relationship: I had opened up to them just as they had opened up to me throughout the semester. "It has always bothered me when a teacher would read hundreds of essays, comment on them, and not read any of their own," wrote one student. "When a professor reads a work of their own they are putting themselves into the lake of vulnerability." Despite the fact that I had disclosed aspects of myself in Risky Writing, my new self-disclosure was different, and they now saw me differently. I was still their teacher, but I had now become another member of the class, one who was struggling, like everyone else, with a personal issue. I had never used the word "intersubjective" in class, but the classroom suddenly became a space where every person, including the teacher, was sharing aspects of his or her own subjectivity with each other.

The remaining two students were unsure whether they thought the eulogy was appropriate to read to the class. One wrote that the eulogy "put a damper on my day because it was so sad;" the other felt it was "a little too personal" to be read to a group of "mere students." I don't wish to invalidate the last response -- the cornerstone of an empathic classroom rests upon the principle that "feelings are feelings" and not to be disregarded -- but I never view members of my class as "mere students." They are not exactly "friends," to whom one may make an intimate self-disclosure, but after several weeks of the semester they are more than acquaintances. I don't believe that teachers should unburden themselves to students or seek psychological counseling from them, but I do believe that a teacher's careful self-disclosure of a real-life experience can become a profound educational experience for everyone in the classroom.

Family and friends became part of my support system as I cared for Barbara during her protracted illness. Without the help of my children, I could not have cared for her at home, especially toward the end, when she required around-the-clock care. Home-care hospice was also invaluable. Teaching was another support system. It afforded me not only a welcome distraction from the endless and exhausting problems confronted by a caregiver but also an opportunity to forget momentarily the crushing sadness I often felt at home. Throughout Barbara's illness I had my normal teaching load, but I had a compressed schedule so that I could be at home as much as possible. Perhaps what most surprised me about my response to Barbara's illness was the ability to compartmentalize my life. At home I fulfilled all my caregiving responsibilities. There were many times during the final weeks of her life when I felt emotionally and physically overwhelmed. Our hospice case supervisor suggested toward the end that it might be time to hospitalize Barbara, not for her sake but for our own. I remember feeling so exhausted from my caregiving responsibilities that I was indifferent to my own health and well-being. I felt that I was dying with Barbara. The early 20th-century Lithuanian-born Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would call this phenomenon, which I'm sure many caregivers feel, "dying for the other," when "worry over the death of the other comes before care for self." We all needed a break from the constant caregiving, yet we also felt that we had come this far and could manage a few more days. In the classroom, however, I felt cheerful, relaxed, and in control. Even during the last weeks of Barbara's life, I laughed and joked as usual in the classroom, which led my students to believe that nothing was wrong in my personal life.

The "teaching cure" enabled me to remain connected with the outer world of health; teaching served as a lifeline for me at a time when I was struggling to be a lifeline for my wife. Many colleagues offered generously to teach my classes during Barbara's illness, and they may have thought that my determination to continue teaching and meeting with students was a sign of strength. The truth was that teaching gave me the strength that otherwise I might not have had, for as much as I gave to my students, they gave to me and helped me through the crisis. As one person noted, "One thing that touched me as you read your eulogy was that teaching kept you sane. Hearing a professor say something like that made me think, 'That is one more reason why teaching is worth it after all.' It also made me wonder when in my life I will be at the point at which I will be able to say the same thing."

My eulogy was a bridge between the world of the healthy and the sick, the living and the dying; I wrote it when Barbara was gravely ill, but rather than distracting me from taking care of her, the eulogy enabled me to avoid succumbing to despair when she could no longer take care of herself. Writing the eulogy helped me to express the lifelong devotion that I have felt for her and she for me. My devotion to Barbara heightened my students' commitment to their teacher. "I found your reading to be very painful," one person wrote, "but I remained as strong as possible for you. I needed to give you my attention while you read it to the class. I knew this was important to you." They were not only a sympathetic audience but also a supportive group, reaching out to me in ways that seldom occur in the classroom. This supportive group takes on some of the characteristics of a "support" group but without offering the clinical advice that occurs in the latter.

My self-disclosure narrowed the distance between students and teacher, leading to a more equal classroom relationship based on reciprocity. There was, in Jessica Benjamin's words, mutual recognition: "the necessity of recognizing as well as being recognized by the other." There was nothing transgressive about this narrowed distance, nothing that would be considered unprofessional. Many past and present students attended the funeral and later came back to my home, along with perhaps a hundred other mourners. The main effect of the eulogy was internal. "I feel a greater sense of trust and respect now because you have shared your experience with us. By doing so, you have broken down the wall that is usually present in the classroom, separating the teacher from the students."


Jeffrey Berman is professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany. This essay is adapted and reprinted with permission from his latest book, Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning (State University of New York Press) ©2007. Berman's previous books include Empathic Teaching: Education for Life and Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom.


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