Life Lessons

September 9, 2013

Two years into my doctoral program in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I left to spend a year in Paris doing research. Among other things, when I returned home,  I was a year behind in doctorate colloquium, a course required by our department to prepare graduate students for the wondrous, painstaking world of dissertation prospectus writing.

I found myself in a classroom with our department chair, who ran the class, and six other students, all in the cohort one year junior to me. Because so many different professors in our department had taken turns teaching the doctorate colloquium, our chair would sometimes come to class with a large file folder, filled with papers of advice, samples, and notes from former professors. It was a neat little archive, and I imagined that it probably revealed a lot about the changing trends in academe and the shifting job market.

One day in class, our current chair at the time, Professor Alan Liu, picked up a Post-It note in the file and smiled. He looked up at the class and said softly, his voice full of warmth: "It’s a note from Richard. Look, his handwriting..." and lifted the Post-It to the class. I felt an immediate lurch inside me, and I blinked, smiled weakly, and looked around the classroom expecting to meet a similar expression on the faces of my classmates. But it was at that moment that Alan and I realized, possibly simultaneously, that no one else in the class had had Richard as a professor. He had died my first year of graduate school, and my original cohort was the last group of new graduate students lucky enough to be in his classroom.

Upon entering graduate school at barely 22 years of age, I was still much like an undergraduate. I was often critically unaware of what I was saying, but managed to chatter on quite a lot (probably to the delight of the older graduate students). I took Richard Helgerson’s class in the winter of 2008, the last class he taught before he died. It was required for students to take a Renaissance literature course, and as a 20th-century person, I was excited about the excursion into Shakespeare and Milton (not so much Spenser). Before I left for graduate school, a friend of mine who was an early modern scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Madison exclaimed his jealousy when he heard I would be attending UCSB. "I can’t believe you’re going to get to take classes with Richard Helgerson," he gushed. This was lost on me at the time, but I soon became aware of Richard’s celebrity as a scholar and teacher. I was set to take his class and find out firsthand what made this man such a literary legend.

But the first day of class was something unexpected. Richard came to class with a bucket. He said he might need it as he was ill. He was very matter-of-fact, reasonable, even apologetic. He had pancreatic cancer, he explained. Despite his condition, Richard’s mental sharpness and brilliance in the classroom made that course one of my most memorable experiences of graduate school. He was endlessly curious about our ideas, and I could tell that he valued the discussion of the texts above all else. The class had a kind of intensity to it, the most presence I’ve felt in a graduate seminar. Everybody read the work. Everybody participated. Everybody listened.

Most surprisingly, Richard maintained such a wonderful sense of humor throughout the course, especially with the younger, more inexperienced graduate students (ahem). As a modernist, I felt such a freedom to speak in that class. Once, I even told Richard that Spenser’s calendar was sort of like the Beach Boys’ "Pet Sounds," "you don’t want to admit it, but there is a weak link... and that link is November," I said with a smug face, thinking I had said something quite associative and brilliant. He didn’t laugh, but rather looked quite amused and pleased. This seemed to be a bold thing for a young graduate student to say with so much conviction. He was even more tickled after an older graduate student explained to him more slowly what had just transpired, what exactly "Pet Sounds" was, etc.

The next week in class when he handed out  discussion question prompts, he wrote "Last week, Megan said X, which has led me to think about Y and its implications for Z." I am completely unashamed to say that I was beaming, so thrilled to be included in a Helgerson prompt. In truth, I had said nothing interesting or meaningful or provocative, but I think he saw in me someone who needed a little encouragement, who had a lot of ideas and not yet the ability to articulate or connect them. I still have that slip of paper.

What was mesmerizing about Richard in those last few months before he died was his grace in the classroom, the absolute thoughtfulness with which he considered every question or comment, the elegance in which he chose to talk about his illness. He was calm. I had never in my young life met someone so calm and soft-spoken in the face of what was to me at the time, something so monstrous and unfair. It was almost unnerving.

Once day in class, a graduate student baked all sorts of treats for Richard and the rest of us. She was an excellent and avid baker, and the aroma of rich chocolate brownies and sugar cookies filled the classroom. When Richard entered, he sat down, and looked at the dessert on the table. He was delighted, said, "Thank you, Annie. That looks so good; I wish I could eat it," and then proceeded to tell us that so many wonderful people in his life had been bringing food to the house that smelled so good and that ... he just couldn’t eat it because ... he just couldn’t eat much anymore.

We felt sick (poor Annie, most of all). Nobody said anything, but I will never forget that day in class. For three hours, the food sat at the center of our graduate table like a looming presence, and in an unspoken solidarity, nobody ate a crumb. There were other small moments like this during that quarter, all equally painful.

Sometimes I wanted to scream in class, Why are you here?! Why are you in classroom teaching silly first-years about Shakespearean sonnets when you should be making the most of your time left?! Go to the beach! Go whale watching! Once in his office, I kind of stumbled into this thought, to which he asked if I was O.K., if I felt uncomfortable in his class. The selflessness of his concern was almost unbearable. I said of course not, but the truth was that I was scared. It hurt to watch him deteriorate week to week.

But Richard was exactly where he should have been. He was with some of the great loves of his life: Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser. And I suppose one does not get tired of their great loves, but rather, in the face of death, devotes oneself to them mercilessly, reads the lines that have kept one spellbound in wonder since a young age.

Richard died a few weeks after our last class. When I went to Richard’s memorial at UCSB, there were many peers and former students who spoke of his generous nature, his kind eyes, his trips to Italy, his devotion as a father, husband, teacher, and scholar. I sat there, knowing that if I felt so terrible after knowing Richard for only a few months, how devastated his own graduate students and colleagues must be, who he had worked with for so much longer. I still think about Richard very often, perhaps too often for how long I knew him. But in my sixth and last year of graduate school, I reflect with affection on that difficult, transformative first year. I think Richard had the gift of being the mentor that each student needed at whatever stage they were at in their academic development, and he met his students there.

For me, at the risk of romanticizing (but what do I care, really), he taught me not only about the power of mentorship, but also adulthood, how to be a real person in a classroom. And whenever I become cynical about academe, the early professionalization, the politicization of the humanities, the defunding of foundational departments characterized as irrelevant, I think of Richard. I think of sitting on the beach in Santa Barbara, reading Shakespeare’s “young man” or “fair youth” sonnets for the first time, marveling over them. I think of Richard as someone who studied literature, first and foremost, because he loved language, and who, I hope, went gently into that good night. I remember thinking something odd in Richard’s class. I thought, I want to die like Richard. This is how a good person learns to die: brave, thoughtful, with gratitude.


Megan Fernandes is adjunct assistant professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.



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