This month will mark the one-year anniversary of the death of Thomas Leland Berger. Some readers of Inside Higher Ed might have known Berger while he lived -- he was a fairly well-known scholar and teacher of English Renaissance literature, active in both the Shakespeare Association of America and the Malone Society. He was renowned for his brilliance (one of his former students, the novelist and short-story writer Lorrie Moore, celebrated his intellect and enthusiasm for literature in a New York Times essay a decade ago) as well as his wit. (He remains one of the funniest people I have ever met.)
Certainly, his intelligence and his cleverness were quite memorable. But I don’t think that’s why I continue to think about Berger today, one year after his death and 17 years after my own graduation from St. Lawrence University, where he taught for decades.
I suppose I should start with my first memory of Berger, who made quite an impression on me when I was a surly 17-year-old high school senior touring colleges throughout New York and New England. My parents and I had come to St. Lawrence University one fall Saturday for a prospective student day -- campus tours, food in the dining hall and meetings with students and faculty members. I didn’t know his name at the time, but Berger was representing the English department alongside representatives from, as I recall, the theater and sociology departments in a discussion of those fields. The idea was that they would tell those of us who had indicated potential interest in those majors just what course work was entailed and what we could expect should we enroll at St. Lawrence. It’s not the most exciting way for an academic to spend his Saturday, but if Berger was annoyed or inconvenienced, he didn’t let on.
Toward the end of the discussion, the person from the admissions office who was coordinating things asked the three faculty members to tell us and -- importantly, I think -- our parents just what sort of valuable, real-world (which probably most of us would take to mean “marketable” or “job-related”) things we would learn in their classes. I don’t recall what the other two professors said. Something about critical thinking and learning how to learn and stuff like that, I’m sure. But when it was his turn to speak, Berger seemed thoughtful, and he answered rather slowly and deliberately.
“All sorts of things,” he said. “For instance, my Shakespeare students are currently reading Antony and Cleopatra, and I think the most important life lesson you can get from that is, if you are in charge of a massive army, and all of your generals tell you to do one thing but your girlfriend thinks you should do something else ….” Here he paused, then leaned forward conspiratorially, and said, “Listen to your generals.”
That wasn’t the only reason I wound up attending St. Lawrence, but his comment did distinguish that prospective student day from others, which are often rather scripted and not particularly distinctive. Here was a college, I knew, where at least one professor knew how to capture your attention.
So that lesson in military strategy was the first lesson Berger taught me -- the first of many. I would go on to take several classes with him, and I learned a great deal about literature, early modern London and, of course, comic timing. Those were all valuable lessons. He was a challenging professor, to be sure -- his quiz questions were unbelievably specific, demanding that we pay careful attention to the minutia in every BBC production of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, when one classmate complained after one such quiz, “Dr. Berger, your quizzes are too hard,” he put his hands in his pockets, cocked his head thoughtfully and replied, “Or, perhaps you’re just too …. Nah. It must be the quiz.”
As demanding as he was, though, students overwhelmingly seemed to love him. His classes were always full, and among the English majors, at least, there was a general agreement that Berger was probably the smartest man in the world. He didn’t work from notes -- he simply came in, opened the textbook to the play under discussion and then typically sat down in front of the class, crossed his legs and began to hold court. I’d never known anyone with so much knowledge in his head, ready to be shared so informally, without pretension or even apparent effort. It made us all want to work even harder -- a good grade from such an obviously intelligent man might mean that we were intelligent, too.
But as I said, he was funny, too. There was the time, toward the end of one semester, when he came into class with the manila envelope and fistful of pencils that indicated we would be filling out course evaluations. He put the evaluation materials on the table at the front of the class, then turned to the chalkboard, where he wrote out the word “dickhead.”
“I figure most of you probably need to know how it’s spelled,” he explained.
The educator in me knows that there probably were students in the class who thought Berger was a dickhead -- no one professor can be loved by all students, surely -- but I couldn’t imagine how someone could think such a thing. Still, I appreciated his suggestion that the student who might think such a thing probably wasn’t very good at spelling, as well as his posture of not caring a whit one way or another. He seemed cooler than cool.
Speak What We Feel
I benefited tremendously from Berger’s instruction as a student, and I doubt I would have gone on to graduate school had he not made being smart look so damn cool. Still, I think he saved his wisest words for our conversations when I wasn’t enrolled in higher education. When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease shortly after Christmas my senior year, I wound up withdrawing from the university. Even if I wasn’t taking classes with him, however, I found that I still wasn’t finished learning from Berger.
I had been in touch with a few friends after the diagnosis, but I hadn’t contacted too many faculty members because, honestly, I didn’t think they would care. I was just one of the hundreds of students they taught over the course of their careers, after all.
So when my mother called down the stairs one morning to tell me I had a phone call, I did not expect to hear Tom Berger’s voice on the other end. But there it was. At a time in my life when I was more scared and lonely than I had ever been, Berger called to see if I was OK. That’s when I realized he was more than a clever person -- more than a wise person, even. He was a very, very good person who had the compassion to reach out to me when I didn’t even realize that I needed to hear from him.
I wish I remembered more of that conversation than I do. I can tell you that later, when I went back to campus to visit while going through chemotherapy, I sat in his office and told him I didn’t think I’d ever want to write about the experience of being ill, as several of my friends and former professors had encouraged me to do. I didn’t want to write something trite or clichéd, I told him -- which was true but wasn’t the biggest issue. The biggest issue, which I think he understood, was that I didn’t want to live with cancer-- even thoughts of cancer-- any longer than I had to. So, I insisted, I would never write about having cancer.
He neither encouraged nor discouraged me in this idea, as I sat across from him in his book-stuffed university office, but he did give me one piece of advice that I still take to heart every day. He said, simply, “You don’t want to be defined by your worst experience.”
So smart. So obviously true. But also, kind of hard to do, sometimes.
If you’re anything like me, maybe you tend to dwell on your pain, or on worst-case scenarios, or on the suffering that is inflicted on all of us over the course of our lives. But if you’re like me, and had a wise mentor caution you not to let such things define you, then maybe you’re also able to remind yourself of your blessings, too. The pets who seem to intuit when you are sad and come over to offer comfort. A cold beer on a hot afternoon. The friends who laugh with you. The spouse who supports you. The family that loves you. The teachers who inspired you.
I was invited to speak at a celebration of Tom Berger’s life earlier this year at the Blackfriars Playhouse, home of the American Shakespeare Center, where I shared an earlier, truncated version of this essay. And a couple weeks ago, his widow and kids (who are all older than I am) sent me a gift -- a coffee mug with a Tom Berger quote -- “I wouldn’t say no to a cup of joe” -- and a very nice card thanking me for sharing my memories at the celebration.
To be honest, the gift made me feel a little guilty. I don’t think I was a particularly memorable student in Tom Berger’s career. While I ran into him at conferences in the years after I graduated, and he vaguely knew my wife, who is also an early modern scholar, we did not stay in particularly close touch. I was always glad to see him, and I think he was always glad to see me. But in the end, I was just one of the thousands of students he interacted with over the course of his amazing career. I happened to have come to the family’s attention because I published something about him after he died, and they invited me to join them in sharing memories, but really, I think just about anyone who studied with the man probably had stories to share.
As Hamlet said, “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” And if I can have even a fraction of the impact on the students that I work with as Tom Berger had on his students, I feel like I will have lived a remarkable life.
William Bradley is an essayist and writing center coordinator at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. His book Fractals was recently released by Lavender Ink.
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