Ode to Danny Keeler: A “Star” If I’ve Ever Gazed One!
I was sitting in my office with three of my TAs when the email arrived. It had the student’s name on the subject line: “Danny Keeler.” I turned and shared with the TAs that I was about to open an email that had me quite nervous. The colleague who had sent me the email is one of my mentors and while we are close in many ways, with me owing him a debt for the support he gave me early in my problematic career at SUNY Plattsburgh, recently we hadn’t talked much. In fact, at that time, I probably owed him a phone call. Suffice it to say, we hadn’t spoken in a while, so an email from him with the subject line” “Danny Keeler,” was more than a bit odd, it was actually quite daunting.
I steeled myself for what I might find in the email, then glimpsed once more around the unoccupied spaces of my office to further gather myself while avoiding eye contact with anyone. I then double clicked to open the correspondence. In a flash the words that somehow conveyed what I didn’t want to read were somehow processed by me amidst a flood of disbelief, an onslaught of grief, a wave of anguish, a smidgen of anger, and a modicum of clarity. The email stated that Danny had been killed two days earlier, hit by a car, while walking to a convenience store from his hotel.
This couldn’t be correct. No one in my world dies by getting hit by a car! Not at 27 years of age. Not someone who is preparing to be a teacher. Not someone who wants to be a teacher to use it as a stepping stone to make this world a better place. Not a young man whose energy I always saw as immeasurable. The words I had just read weren’t saying Danny Keeler, the Danny Keeler that I knew who had his entire left arm tattooed, who had asked me what he should do about it when interviewing for jobs, who was always eager to rap about racism with me, who must have given me more music CDs than any other student, ever, possibly more than all the others combined, that Danny Keeler couldn’t die.
I recall meeting Danny when he joined the mentoring program I founded and directed for SUNY Plattsburgh called T.E.A.M. (Transitions, Embracing All-Inclusive Mentoring). He was amongst the last mentees I agreed to mentor while I facilitated T.E.A.M. The mentoring program was one of the few failures I believe I had in my administrative career at SUNY Plattsburgh. We had a membership once of over 250 people, but always suffered from faculty/staff signing up to mentor students, and then far too often never calling them. I was always inundated with disappointed students who really thought they were going to have a great relationship with a faculty or staff member, but instead were left hanging. So, I often had not only my one or two assigned mentees, but often another three or four that were floating. Danny, a young, White male was cool with the fact that I was to be his T.E.A.M. mentor. Though my background was Los Angeles while his was Syracuse, my academic background was Philosophy and his Anthropology, my distant mentors were W.E.B. DuBois and Socrates while his local mentors were Mark Cohen and Richard Robbins, we still somehow connected because we were both fascinated by one another, and we both put some energy into the relationship. He was a serious student who always seemed to ask the one question in class discussions that would have been left on the table if he hadn’t been in the discussion. His questions provoked, and revealed a depth in his way of seeing that was far beyond his years. He was one of those students that you know you are fortunate enough to have in your class, in your mix, perhaps even in your crew because even you, as mentor, knew that however cool you might be, affiliating with this new age urban scholar would elevate your game as well.
Smart, handsome, athletic, intelligent, edgy, insightful, witty, charming, articulate, cerebral, funny, and did I say smart? He had it all, and was committed to not flaunting it, but would bring it with force when necessary, or provoked. I remember the day he introduced me to how racist some dimensions of his Syracuse reality were before he arrived at SUNY Plattsburgh. He would talk in disbelief about how ridiculous it was of him to have disliked people simply because others had a dislike towards them that they hadn’t unpacked and were trying to get him to see the world the way they did. I remember watching him interact with my son and how wonderfully my son responded to this extremely accessible and unpretentious young man. Sadly, I also remember when I called my son to tell him of Danny’s death. It was quite painful to have him respond that he didn’t remember Danny. Startled, I wanted to challenge him by asking “How could you not remember Danny?” Instead I just let my eyes fill with tears and silently started the process of terminating the conversation with my son so that I could truly sit in silence, and grieve.
In life Danny taught me that I was, at least in his eyes, an adequate professor and even better person. He respected my mind, my manner of mentoring, my methods of intellectually challenging my students, but more so, he liked to rap with me about life, his life and mine. Unlike many students that share stories of their world while never asking or entertaining what might be happening in their professor’s lives, Danny genuinely was curious about what made me tick. As a matter of fact, he seemed genuinely interested in what made others tick. It was this unique sensibility of his that had Professor Deb Light and I, on more than one occasion, despondent about the fact that we wouldn’t have the chance for him to TA with us due to his impending graduation.
I have had one of the most difficult periods of my professional life trying to put into perspective the loss of this intellectually adventurous young person. I lost another student about a year ago that I thought the world of, but really didn’t know him in contrast to my knowledge and teaching experiences with Danny. As a result of the profoundness of our relationship I have fought tears throughout writing this blog and know that Danny’s death will haunt me forever as a symbol of the unpredictability of our existence. More so, what will haunt me as well are those times that I could have kicked it with Danny on the West Coast if I had just rescheduled this or that. I will second guess, even though I know I shouldn’t, some of those vacant moments of political correctness with people I would have preferred not to be spending time with, when I could have been further engaging Danny’s intellectual curiosity. But Danny’s true legacy, his lasting impact upon me will be for me to remember to take the time and truly engage those stars that from the very beginning just seem to shine brighter. By doing that, if they happen to fall from the sky, at least I will know that before their fall, I embraced the opportunity to revel in their majesty!