Last night, I had a dream about Alex Kroff, my major professor when I was a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin. He was, officially, the director of my Ph.D. thesis--the thesis that for several years I pretended (and even partially believed) I was writing. I suspect that Alex knew, better than I, that Ken Kirkeby was not cut out to be either a scholar or a denizen of Academe. But he never said anything. He never got in my face about my lack of enthusiasm for second or third-rate nineteenth century French plays. He never insisted (not, at least, very seriously) upon seeing concrete results of my supposed research.
OK. It's true that Alex was a bit of a dilettante himself--believing, I have no doubt, that sophisticated eating mattered more in the "great scheme of things" than did pretentious or trendy thinking (he was a stickler for proper footnotes, though). Still, I'm pretty sure that because he cared for me as a person, he was willing to cut me some slack as a student. He trusted me to work though my own identity crisis, without any gratuitous needling or nagging on his part.
I loved him for that. And I still feel a bit guilty that, somehow, I didn't turn out as he would probably have preferred. In the fullness of time, I muddled through and did the best I could. But perhaps my lingering awareness of the "road not taken" accounts for why I so frequently dream about Alex, just as I do about my mother, father and grandparents (all of whom I disappointed in some way or another).
"Uncle" Alex died unexpectedly in 1976, not coincidentally the year I definitively abandoned all doctoral pretensions. Late that summer, at the absolute nadir of my life, I left the University of Wisconsin pour de bon and moved, with neither money in pocket nor objective in mind, to Washington, D.C. But on my last day in Madison, as I piled my pathetic belongings into the old Dodge Dart that my parents had given me, I still couldn't resist jamming into the trunk--behind the worn spare tire--a small box containing ALL of the "research" I had completed in eight full years of fraudulent travail. It was a very modest parcel indeed.
Guess what? I didn't throw out that box until twenty years later, just after I had made a commitment to teach English (not French) for the remaining ten years of my career. Try to figure that one out.
Do I have regrets about all of this? Yes, of course. I cannot really be proud of the time I wasted and the love I squandered in my abortive attempt to avoid the truth about my nature, viz., that I am not an intellectual and that I have no aptitude whatsoever for the mental discipline and systematic thinking (or nitpicking) of Academe.
But I am smart. And as a result of my "lost" decade, I learned a number of things, the most pertinent of which--for the theme of this blog--is the vital, immeasurable, incomparable worth of TEACHERS. The loss of Alex stunned me and the depth of my reaction to his death obliged me to examine my own life. After all, I had often sought to avoid my major professor, indeed all professors--hoping thereby to evade my own sense of failure as a student. But Alex's sudden departure, more than anything, made me acknowledge, with deep emotion, the great affection that I felt--not just for A.Y. Kroff--but indeed for every teacher I had ever had.
Teachers. From the very beginning, I had always loved school (if not always my schoolmates). In many ways, the classroom was more home than home. Alma mater. And teachers, even the weak ones (including those, like Joe Rivers, whom I tormented), were truly my foster parents. Almi patres (?) Thanks to Alex--and, in particular, as a result of his precipitous and wrenching departure from my life, I realized that--though I would probably never be a biological father, I COULD be the next best thing: an almus pater, a "nurturing father," a teacher. That was the central "turn around moment" of my life. I woke up and was born again. Hallelujah, amen.
Recently, many years after my personal Great Awakening, I was moved by a writer to the local paper whose letter paid tribute to the teachers who had formed him. Quoting Hippocrates, he affirmed what many of us feel: the Mrs. Brundgardts, Miss Engs, Mr. Bianchis, Mrs. Kalmeses, Mrs. Peterses, Mr. Livingstons, Mr. Glausers, Mrs. Knops, Mr. Kroffs--these teachers have also been our parents, and in consequence, we owe them an enormous debt. Here's what Hippocrates wrote:
"I swear... to hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture."
Well, I don't imagine many of my former students will soon be sharing their wealth with me. Nor would I expect it. But I'm happy that I finally realized what I could be good at. I couldn't be a scholar, like Alex. But I could be a good teacher--also like Alex.
I miss you, Alex Yale Kroff. Though I don't even have a picture of you, you were my almus pater. And a model for what, I hope, I too became. Où que tu sois, même si tu ne vis plus que dans mes rêves, je t'embrasse bien fort et bien affectueusement. Merci mon très cher père.
P.S. Please excuse any Latin expressions that I may have mangled in this post. I loved my high school Latin class because reading about Caesar's Gallic Wars appealed to my incipient Francophilia. I also thought togas and vomitoria were pretty cool. But I never bothered to learn very much of the actual language.