Last week, something was tugging at my conscience. Everyone’s had that feeling, and it’s disturbing and nauseating, but necessary for us to become better people.
This week my guilty conscience came too late, leaving me without redemption, only regret.
I recently realized that I am approaching my tenth year as a college professor. I complain about academia a lot, but the reality is that I love my work and I can’t really imagine what else I could do with my life.
In fact, I have no business anywhere near academia, but somehow accidentally tripped into its web. By some miracle or cosmic accident, I found myself finishing a college degree I didn’t deserve. Even more astonishing, I was legitimately entranced by my education that last year of college. Sure, I’d finally figured myself out a bit, but the turn in my life only happened because of the professors who emerged into the fog of my aimlessness. They cast a light on a possible future for this nomad. In short, they were inspiring.
The first was Dr. Martha Cutter, who was the one responsible for me going to grad school in the first place, suggesting it at the end of a course I took with her. I’ve kept in touch with Martha and she knows my gratitude.
The other was Dr. Kevin Floyd, though he insisted we just call him Kevin (maybe he is the root of my angst about formal titles).
Kevin taught the course that remains one of my all-time favorites, “American Lit: 1945-Present.” That was where I first read Nabokov, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Samuel R. Delany, Allen Ginsberg, and Gloria Naylor. The books he chose were unexpected and exciting and Kevin’s classroom presence was both informal and immense. In an overstuffed Kent State classroom, he taught these books in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Yes, he led us through the works, but really he walked through them with us.
There was wide participation in these discussions because if you didn’t read, you wouldn’t pass the class, thanks to his daily reading quizzes that, almost ritualistically, opened our class discussions. He was merciless, brilliant, and revelatory.
I’ve long been aware of how much of Kevin’s teaching methods and approach I have stolen as a teacher myself. I possess nowhere near the intellect he did, so I imagine I am far less intimidating to my undergraduates, but in as much as my literature and film classes are successful, it is largely because of what I lifted from Kevin (and Rob Spadoni in grad school).
Kevin is my pedagogical moon, exerting tidal influence over my work as a teacher to this day.
And Kevin even wrote me a letter for my grad school applications. I timidly walked into his office after graduation and made my request, telling him how influential his class was for me. Kevin, was suddenly approachable and was more than gracious in accepting my request. The pressure relieved, I sat with him for a few minutes chatting about a Samuel Delany story I read after his class. He hadn’t read it yet (this weirdly bridged the gap between us just a bit) and listened as I related it to The Einstein Intersection. We left it at that.
And yet, for some reason, I never kept in touch with him. Maybe I never got over my intimidated awe of his tall figure and penetrating eye contact. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that he wasn’t on Facebook.
In fact, after my trip to his office, I only spoke to him one more time. He called me at 11pm the night before my materials were due to Case Western Reserve’s grad program. He apologized profusely for the lateness of the call, but I laughed, finding it charming. He wanted to run over a couple of key points with me before submitting the letter.
I was admitted to the program and life swiftly moved on. The next thing I knew, fifteen years flew past and I’d never followed up with Kevin.
I suppose I’m at “that age” now. Re-connecting old dots eventually becomes important.
So last week I added "email Kevin" to my to-do list, just to let him know that his letter worked. I was going to tell him that I had become as successful as I had any right to expect being, and that he was, and remained, a monumental influence on my life, though he had no idea. I wanted him to know that his work meant something. He had shaped me.
But as I looked him up on Kent State’s website, he wasn’t there. I typed his name into my browser’s search bar and saw why.
Kevin was dead.
He died of a brain tumor in 2019, my conscience almost two years late.
I can’t produce a name for what I’m feeling. I’m sad for Kevin’s pain. I’m thinking about his family’s loss. I’m disgusted at myself for waiting so long to simply send an email saying “thank you.” I’m angry that Kent State has flippantly erased his presence from their website. I could find no statement, no update on the department website, no article in the university newspaper about Kevin’s death.
Another former student wrote a blog post in November of 2019 and the literary group which he served as president for three years dedicated a special issue to him.
A few times, when traveling through the area, I have visited Kent’s campus and walked its old halls. I know that at least twice I stopped by Kevin’s office, but he was not there. I did not leave a note.
I can no longer close the loop on the past. The opportunity is gone. All I can do now is try and push his influence, as it exists ever so faintly in me, into the future with my own students.
Offer your thanks while you can.
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