Taking leave

Stephen Vicchio

November 06, 1992|By Stephen Vicchio

The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,/ Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sere.

@4 -- William Cullen Bryant, "The Death of Flowers" I TEACH ancient philosophy in the fall. When I arrive with my students at the work of Heraclitus, the leaves are giving themselves up, and one can feel an unsuspected sharpness in the air, the first breaths of cold sweeping down from the north. Just about this time, I look out at the oaks that frame my classroom window, and I tell my students that among the ancient Greeks, Heraclitus was known as "the weeping philosopher."

Heraclitus was preoccupied with what came to be known in the history of philosophy as the problem of change. He was the man who said one cannot step in the same river twice. He seems to have been overtaken by the sheer transitoriness of things. He knew that all of life is as ephemeral as a soap bubble, that it lasts as long as an eye blink in the mind of God. This autumn Heraclitus is on my mind. In this season of departure, two of my friends have taken life's leave. They will not see the leaves turn in another fall.

As far as I know, my two friends never met. They would not have had much in common had I introduced them. The woman was in the process of raising two boys. The man never married. The woman was a devout Catholic, the man ordained in the Presbyterian church. They did share the career of teaching -- and a disease that took their lives too early.

But it is about their teaching I wish to tell you.

Like life, teaching is an ephemeral art. It is often done in out-of-the-way places, for not very much money, by people who only get their names in the newspaper when life's spark has left their bodies. Unlike the making of a book or the producing of a film, good teaching dissipates like smoke, or rather, we must depend on our students to carry our teaching silently in their hearts and minds.

Teachers, of course, always know who the good teachers are. We all secretly compare ourselves to each other. Both my friends were extraordinary teachers. The man built a reputation for kindness and scholarship as a teacher of Hebrew language and literature. The woman was an energetic and creative member of the business department at the College of Notre Dame.

Before the end, my friend wrote letters to her boys. She wrote about their particular gifts and aspirations, and she tried to tell them some of the things they would need to hear after she was gone: that courage is a virtue that is not bestowed but must be created daily; that fortitude, tenderness and hope should never be in short supply.

This fall the woman was honored as college's distinguished teacher of the year. She died a few days later. I was on the committee that forwarded her name to the president. In the hours of meetings leading to the committee's selection, there was not one sentence uttered about her brain tumor. She was chosen because she was an extraordinary teacher. She regained consciousness long enough to know she had won the award, and then she died.

The man found out about his liver cancer last winter. He struggled through surgery, various kinds of experimental chemotherapy and the normal indignities we have come to expect in this age of advanced medicine. In the midst of his suffering, he decided to continue plans to take his students to the Holy Land. By last spring the disease had made great inroads. His weight was down, his belly distended from the treatment. He made the trip anyway.

Later, he managed to go through his books, making notes about who could benefit from one book or another after he was gone. The last time I talked to him was on the phone a few days before he died. I had called to find out how he was doing. We spent most of the short conversation talking about Hebrew grammar. Both my friends remained teachers until the last.

Much of my teaching career has been a search for a metaphor -- an image that could successfully sum up what my colleagues and I do every day. In the past I have suggested it is like dancing with our students. But this morning, I have decided it is more like playing in a symphony. We practice individually every evening at home, but we play together every day at the university. We may play in separate rooms. But we are all, in some mysterious way, playing the same music.

I feel like a violinist who has been at his playing long enough to know a good musician when I hear one. We have lost two virtuosi. It is a bit like tuning my violin before an important performance and looking over to the oboe and flute sections to find two empty chairs. The orchestra will not be the same without them. There was a tenderness in both their playing which is not easy to find.

As I write, I glance out the window to discover a busy squirrel scampering up and down a cherry tree. The tree used to be nestled among a grove of elms. The elms are gone to disease.

Those elms will no longer bring a moment's beauty to the lives of sentient creatures. As I search for the vanished trees, I begin to understand the real tragedy of the deaths of my two friends. It is not just that her children are losing a loving mother, and their families a caring son and brother, a sister and devoted daughter. It is also that their music will be lost. There are generations of students who will be deprived of their art. We will refill their seats, but we cannot replace the music.

She was 51 years old. He was 45. They should have played much longer.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. His latest collection of essays, "Ordinary Mysteries," is published by Wakefield Editions.

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