In Memory of a Class Act!
The other day in the Examining Diversity through Film (EDTF) course I co-teach at SUNY-Plattsburgh we watched a film clip from a movie that showed a supervisor, a man in a position of power, taking advantage of a younger man who wasn’t necessarily sure of himself and was looking to be mentored. Because of his lack of confidence, the young man presented himself as someone who could be manipulated easily. He was manipulated by the man in power and it made for one of the most humiliating scenes the class and I have seen in a movie this semester, if ever. The scene itself, gripping with intensity for most, was nonetheless greeted by some in the classroom with snickers and laughter. I was caught off guard and appalled at the same time. I had seen this scene over and over again, even used it in different workshops from time to time. So it is no understatement to say that witnessing this reaction to someone being so thoroughly denigrated was not easy. A bit thereafter in unpacking the film clip—which was centered on the often problematic notion of privilege—our discussion eventually turned a certain corner and I asked the classroom of 100 plus students what was so funny. I am a passionate communicator who thinks somehow that being passionate isn’t necessarily a problem, as long as it is managed. In this case I may have mismanaged my moment.
I have heard people talk about how there is nothing more painful than losing a child. As most of you know I have children, and can’t imagine any of them out of my life. But as a college professor, I never thought my connection with students could be profound enough to make me feel tremendous grief over one of my students, until recently.
When I returned from my winter holidays I was overwhelmed to discover that a young man who had taken my African American Culture course, Joshua Szostak, was missing. Unfortunately I came to this realization when I entered Kehoe and saw his picture on one of the doors. I can’t begin to tell you how devastated I was. A few weeks later I went to Albany on business and was again greatly thrown off balance when I saw posters of Josh posted on walls all around the Albany train station.
It is a funny thing that we as humans do when we know something is amiss, but try to deny it. In my heart I was terrified for Josh, and his family. Over the next few months images of him occasionally visited me, but like most people, my life took over and I found my way back into my flow. And then it happened! Two weeks ago, I was over in Burlington at UVM and my phone beeped. I recognized the text from one of the EDTF Teacher’s assistants, but almost didn’t look at it because I was in class. Earlier that day, right before our class, she and I had spoken of Josh (whom as one of her best friends she affectionately called Stag), her pointing out to me that one of the reasons she had taken the EDTF class was his recommendation. Well, her text message simply said
“You know how we were talking about Stag today …they found his body in the Hudson today.”
I was so overwhelmed with grief, pain, shock, angst, anger, loss, and emotion. I just wanted to get up and leave the classroom. I was immobilized for a moment and then realized that I probably should respond to the young woman who had been kind enough to fight through her emotion to share with me what had happened to her friend and my student. Through holding back tears amidst my doctoral cohort I responded to her text with one word,
I am trying to fight back tears as I retell this story to you and I am not winning. It hurt to think he was missing and that some foul play might have happened. It hurt to hear that he was actually gone. It hurt to focus on the fact that this young man wouldn’t be seen again on this earth by anyone, especially those who loved him.
Imagine fast forwarding from that Tuesday when I received the text, to three days later, and it’s now Friday. The students have laughed at one person getting oppressed by another, and for the first time ever, I couldn’t take this level of insensitivity. I went to inquire about the reason why some of them laughed, and couldn’t get a word out of my mouth, nor could I see a single one of the 100 plus students because of how heavily I was sobbing. It must have shocked all the students and my colleague, but there was nothing I could do, except try to explain the sudden outburst of tears, which took me a moment to do because I literally couldn’t speak for about ten seconds, which feels like an eternity when 100 people are staring into your face.
I told the students that I was crying because listening to some of them laughing at one individual inflicting pain on another was extremely disappointing to me as one of their professors. With my eyes completely drenched I told the class of a young man whose body had just been found in the Hudson River only days before. I asked how many of them knew him, or of him. I told them how this young man was made of different stuff. I shared with them how he was one of only a few young white males who had ever taken my African American Culture course. From what I understand more don’t take it due to their inability to see a need to know more about African Americans. I am told by many of my white students that the prevailing question that comes from their white peers is: Why are you taking an African American Culture course? This question is so fascinating to me that it has often inspired me to ask my students why they take the class.
Josh took the course because he was interested in learning about people. He was not the best student in terms of the quality of his work. However, in terms of his intellectual curiosity to explore differences outside of himself, he was phenomenal. On numerous occasions he stayed after class just to talk. We would talk about his perspective on a reading, or an observation of black folk that was consistent/inconsistent with something he had previously thought. We basically just rapped. I remember on one occasion he handed me a CD he had burnt for me on some old school African American artists, almost as if to better acquaint me with my own culture. It was the contrast between thoughts of this endearing young man who left us far too early and thoughts of a class laughing at someone’s torment that took me into my emotional turmoil. Looking back on it, it wasn’t fair of me to compare anyone to someone else. Somehow in that moment in class when I cried deeply for the loss of one of the classiest young people I had ever had the pleasure of teaching, all my perspective exited my body and all I wanted was to let everyone know that in some major way we needed to collectively pause and acknowledge the passing of someone who was truly capable of caring. As I slowly regained my composure I noticed that my class was eerily silent. I realized then that most of them had probably never seen one of their professors crying. I also realized that a great many of them were caught up in my emotion. They also may have been crying for the loss of one of their own, or perhaps crying for a professor that they somewhat care for, or perhaps crying because they recognized how fragile life is, and that with a sleight twist of fate, that could have been any of them. Regardless of the reason, for a fleeting moment I was ashamed of myself. Just as shame threatened to dominate me I caught my breath, and ended the emotional onslaught. Later during the screening of a film clip I would have to leave class because my emotions got the best of me once again. I thought I had it all under control finally only to have tears race down my face repeatedly as I wrote this blog posting. Perhaps my strategy is to talk about it to the point where it provides me closure. Or perhaps subconsciously it is to entice my community to wander with me into a very different space that even I don’t often go to. I will end my rambling now and thank those of you who took the time to read this lengthy homage to one of my youngbloods, one of our youngbloods.
May he rest in peace!