A Professor Retires



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By Robert Michael

There I stood a few months ago, in a crowded corridor of the ugly concrete campus building that I loved. There I stood, staring at the key in my hand, ignoring the students and faculty members walking past me. The key to my office, where I'd spent the last 30 years and which I was about to strip of my stuff to divide among my wife, children, colleagues, students, and the Salvation Army. My whole world had seemed tucked away in that gray, windowless office, where each inch held a different story about my career, about my life.

The telephone that informed me of my father's death, then my mother's, and then my best friend's. My rabbi - born and bred in Dublin - always comforting me with that combination of Yiddish and Irish culture. The telephone that advised me of sabbaticals won and lost; of books and articles published and left unpublished; of prizes and papers and speaking engagements; of disappointments, rejections, and failures.

Taped to the walls, pictures of my three children from babies to university students, from their first day of school through their bat/bar mitzvahs to posing with their own cars. I'd also hung their chocolate-stained drawings made as they sat in my class bravely bearing up through my lectures when I couldn't find a baby-sitter. A shot I snapped at the Louvre when my wife and I were traveling to Paris for our honeymoon.

The pictures of my colleagues. Most of them full of humor, helpful, kind, and - the best descriptive - collegial. But one suicide. Two others who died, I'm convinced, of broken hearts because they were forced out of the profession - appropriately, since they had become useless as teachers and stayed years past their time - but nevertheless tragedies both. Three or four whose eccentricities bordered on the insane, sometimes good insane, other times bad insane.

A dozen diplomas, awards, certificates that hang on hooks pounded into the walls. I'm proudest of my Phi Beta Kappa membership. I remember that at the initiation ceremony I was so nervous I signed the membership book with my father's name instead of my own. And when I stepped from the stage, all my mother would talk about was how she hated the boots I was wearing.

A slave bell from Pompeii.

Artifacts I used in my history classes: the sculpture of the shewolf suckling Romulus and Remus that I bought near the Trevi, where tourists pulled up in taxis, threw coins in the fountain, and then rushed away without ever leaving the cab. My tin of Bon Bon Napoleon candies. A facsimile of a French royalist newspaper that had called him "the Corsican monster" upon his leaving Elba, but ended up a week later announcing that "His Imperial Highness" would be arriving in Paris tomorrow. A wooden gladius, traditionally offered to Roman gladiators who retired, that I use in class to accentuate my points with a flourish and a slap on the podium. My miniature guillotines -- why do I have two? -- which I'll give as prizes to my students for getting top grades.

An extra pair of shoes.

A bag of yellow felt six-pointed stars with the word JEW printed on each in black, and white crosses, left over from a field trip when my whole Holocaust class - all Christians - drove to the local mall on a Friday night. I led 20 of us marching through the mall wearing crosses; then an hour later we all wore Jewish stars. We were trying to discern the differing reactions of the crowds to Christians, then to Jews. (The experiment went bust because only the most foolhardy mall-crawler would mess with 20 people led by a gigantic, bearded man with a most determined look on his face.)

A raincoat.

A map of Europe marking my last sabbatical travels. 1) From Paris to the American Military Cemetery in Normandy, where I counted the crosses and Jewish stars and wept like a fool. 2) To the concentration camp Natzweiler, where Reichsuniversitaet Strasbourg professors murdered 100 Jews and carefully removed all soft tissue from their corpses so that the university's Research Institute could display their skeletons. 3) To Dachau, where I noted the thriving Catholic and Protestant chapels versus the deserted, chained-up Jewish synagogue. 4) To Nürnberg, where I saw a swastika painted on a wall downtown and searched in vain for paint remover. 5) To Prague, where hundreds of French and German tourists pushed their way through the Altneushul, Europe's oldest synagogue, while the pitifully small congregation tried in vain to hold Sabbath services.

Some ticket stubs from a History Club trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The students suffered and learned not only from the museum but also from the bus trip itself, when the bus strayed into a part of the city where it was not welcomed and was stoned.

Gifts from students after a course was finished: An illustrated copy of Voltaire's Candide. A bull's pizzle (Candide was whipped with one) brought from the Azores by a Portuguese-American student. It was used there as a policeman's billy-club. One of my colleagues in Languages has first dibs on it.

A mug with a broken handle from the 1976 Montreal Olympics holding my pens and pencils.

The empty chair that many of my 10,000 students have sat in to explain why they missed their exams, to weep over their lost relatives, to laugh at my jokes. Just last semester a student explained that in the computer lab where she was typing up the final draft of her paper, a friend of hers snatched the pepper spray out of her bag and when she tried to grab it back, it went off and the whole lab had to be evacuated. When the police and EMTs arrived, she and her friend ran outside the building and threw the pepper spray into the woods. After she returned to the lab, she discovered that the file containing her paper had been trashed. So she said.

I remember years ago requiring all students who missed more than three classes to get permission from the dean of students before they could return to my course. At the time, I was leading a rich fantasy life and actually thought this would work to improve attendance. By the end of the first month, the dean called me, begging me to drop my requirement because he couldn't take hearing any more sob stories.

I see in that empty chair hundreds of students I liked, admired, and wanted to hug, and I regret I didn't tell them so. I see a favorite student who died of an overdose on Horseneck Beach, another who was killed in an auto accident driving to graduate school in Providence, a student who threatened me with a knife, another who swore he'd beat me up, a young female student who offered me more than I am willing to tell you about. More than a dozen times I had to get students to move out of that chair and walk them into the corridor because I needed the safety of a public hallway.

But mostly that empty chair reminds me of the wonderful, beautiful human beings who were my students, Jews and Christians, from every social class and from almost every ethnic group, who listened wide-eyed to my stories, who kept me young, who taught me as much about life as I learned from my teachers and colleagues.

My books.

I don't have the space here to explore the galaxy of books that used to inhabit my shelves. I wrote a dozen of them myself, almost all of them now donated to the university library, which for 30 years has been buying books on the Holocaust that I've suggested. Until just a few years ago, we had a better collection than Harvard's distinguished Widener Library. I'd marked each of my books with my observations -- "wrong," "right on target," "bullshit," "yes!!!" often just the abbreviation N.B., nota bene. And I still hear the voices calling to me from these books, voices of historical figures I hate and I love, odi et amo, wrote Catullus. Each one worth an infinity of words. Books on Moses, Socrates, Alcibiades, Sappho, Terrence, Catulus, Jesus/Jeshua of Nazareth, Caligula, Innocent III, Michelangelo, Luther, Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Bonaparte, Beethoven, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Hitler, Stalin, Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and the list goes on.

A handmade paper angel with a gold Star of David -- a present from my daughter.

A gold-framed letter from a philosophy professor of mine, Peter Bertocci. I'd written to him when I was getting in trouble serving in Germany in the U.S. Army, and he reminded me to save my strength for the difficult moral decisions and just let the petty issues slide. He's the one who'd got me fascinated by the quest for wisdom and piety, the search for self-knowledge and courage, that I like to think has informed my life and career. Of all my professors, he was the best, the ideal. A short, stocky, powerful man, with olive skin and bulging forearms exposed by rolled-up shirtsleeves, he argued brilliantly, his examples and analogies were breathtaking, his mind always active and sharp. He'd do almost anything to make a point, throwing heavy wooden chairs into the air, prancing from left to right and back again as he taught, stopping to thrust himself into the class or circle us like a dancing Socrates. When teaching, he moved to a higher plane of existence and pulled us along with him. Once, at the end of an hour's lecture, I screwed up my courage and asked him to tell us the meaning of life. He hesitated, stepped backward and silently pondered my question. After a full minute, he stepped forward and said, "The meaning of life -- the meaning of life is to do the best you can with what you've got." I'm convinced that, although he's now long dead, he's still challenging those spirits around him to be the wisest, the justest, and the best they can be.

My office was my own private world from which books and Macintosh computers led me into a thousand universes. And this key in my hand has unlocked the door to these universes for me almost every weekday and hundreds of nights and weekends for three decades. Of course, I'll be teaching a "History of Western Civilization from Moses Through the Holocaust" - -the beginning and end of time for me -- this coming academic year and sharing a small office with a colleague. And I would never upset his world by bringing along my whole kit and caboodle, so I've really got to get cracking and disperse my old career. I've new universes to conquer, a new key to have made. I'm emeritus, an honorably discharged veteran who's just re-upped for a few more years of part-time service. Dreams failed and fulfilled, and I love it, I love it all.

[Published in 2002 by Chronicle of Higher Education]


from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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