Tuesday, October 23, 2012

It is a stunning fall morning here in New England, air crisp, the leaves shot through with sunlight, glowing...and my father is not rising to eat his morning oat bran chased by a glass of orange juice.  He is not putting on his khakis, worn brown belt, button-down with one of his older ties dating from the seventies, and blue blazer.  He is not taking his stack of graded papers tied together with multi-colored rubber bands and heading out the door to the community college where he's worked for more than forty years. He is not listening to Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel on the stereo of his Saab as he drives with the controlled aggression and skill of the high school football player he once was, and he is not swinging into the parking lot he's entered so many fall mornings nobody could count, eager to begin his day.

No one says, "Hi Professor Bobkoff," as they pass a tall, curly-headed man walking along the campus path, broad shouldered, moving with the stiff, determined gait of an athlete, leaning forward, steps energized by thoughts of his lesson plans.  My father will surely take the stairs, sometimes two at a time, to the top floor of the classroom building where he will enter a room of fresh-faced kids and take the helm of Comp. and Lit. 1, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, or his famous Holocaust Studies.  His teaching will be fair, humorous, detailed yet easy to follow, spiced with classroom games that keep the students engaged, the same way he made games for me that took the boredom out of learning.

I will never forget Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, because my father paid me a quarter for every composer I could guess, especially if I could do it within the first measures, and Humperdinck was the one I did not know--I was ten, sitting in the back seat of his car, listening to the opera, and I was stumped, furiously stumped.  Finally my father told me this odd name, Engelbert Humperdinck, a name no mother should ever give her child, a name as strange as Rumpelstiltskin, and befitting the composer of an opera based off a fairy tale.

My father's lessons were never forgotten. In particular I recall the entire year of third grade in which I could not, for the life of me, learn to alphabetize.  I delegated every assignment to the children sitting next to me and managed to somehow slip under the teacher's radar until that fateful spring afternoon when she forced me to find something in the dictionary, standing over me, peering down through her spectacles, as I rifled through the pages, nervous fingers flipping, turning, pretending, until I finally came up blank.  A note was sent home to my parents: "Julia did not learn to alphabetize the entire school year.  We need to address this issue immediately." And my father did address it immediately.  Within one hour of sitting beside him on our white couch, through his patient, step by step instructions that made so much more sense to me than my teacher's, I suddenly saw the light, and from then on could find a book in the library or a perfect word for my writing in a thesaurus, or a poet's dictionary.

I still remember that little red book of rhymes, a gift from my father, to aid me with my poetry writing. I would sit every weekend at my little red desk that matched my little red book and write stanza upon stanza, one of my fourth grade epics entitled: "The Quest for Companionship," a phrase that elicited a laugh from my father as he leaned over my shoulder one day.  I was deeply insulted.  How could my father laugh at my work, at the sense of loneliness I had spent days trying to capture in words, that longing for a kindred mind or soul? I pointed out that I had used a new word he taught me earlier that day--cavalcade.  He read the line aloud, with his perfect cadences, the voice of a seasoned lover of literature: "A cavalcade of tender leaves enclosed above my head." When my father read this, I could imagine an audience of rapt listeners.  He smiled at me and suddenly the sting of his laughter was gone.  Pride zinged through every cell of my body as I returned with renewed vigor to the composing of twenty stanzas.

I still remember that number and how hard the task I set myself seemed, but I did complete it and my teacher, Mrs. Gochman, added the poem to her collection of my work in her special file cabinet, the one where she forever saved the brilliant offerings of her most talented students.  Like my father, Mrs. Gochman seemed to believe that I had a special call to use words to impact the world.  Years later, when I was in a difficult slump, having left film school, ill, and struggling to write screenplays while raising three children, an envelope would arrive in the mail, addressed in Mrs. Gochman's looping script, and inside I would find the carefully preserved poems and drawings I gave her so many years ago.  A note was enclosed, encouraging me to continue to write and follow my dreams and let her know how things turned out.

And how does life turn out?  Sometimes your heroes die.  They just do. Until his very last days my father continued to push himself to teach.  He could no longer drive due to the side effects of powerful cancer medications. His feet hurt when he walked, the soles tenderized by the pills he took.  He told me that he felt about ninety years old and that sometimes he pretended to stop along the college path and admire a fall leaf twisting down so as to fool the student body into thinking he was simply lost in professorial thought rather than too ill and in pain, too riddled with tumors, too near death to move one leg in front of the other.  Though I am sure all his doctors told him to give up and resign himself to his bed, my father willed himself with that steely will, the will of a competitive athlete, the will of a man who never gave up, the will of the father who taught me to slam that tennis ball over the net even if there was no hope of winning the set, to hit that baseball out of the park even if the game was not weighted in my favor, to run as hard as I could across the finish line of the fifty-yard dash even if my shins were fractured, as they were in college, even if they were bound with tape and fractured further with every step, for it was more important to finish one's tasks, to cross the last line, to go out with a bang, than to give in with a sigh. So my father would stand there, waiting until the power of his call to teach overwhelmed the sting of approaching death, and he could press forward along the path, open the door of the classroom building, nod one more time at the lady at the front desk who always loved him, take those firm steps, perhaps this time to the elevator, enter the classroom now, place his papers on the desk, turn to the wide-eyed faces that never suspected a thing was amiss, try to hold his tears in check, and begin, "Today we are reading Pudd'nhead Wilson...does anyone know why its author, Samuel Clemens, chose the pen name Mark Twain?"

A silence in the room, the waiting for his answer, just as I once waited at the breakfast table, staring into my Cheerios, stumped, yet again, by his questions.

"Samuel Clemens worked as a riverboat captain on the Mississippi River. He loved his job.  In fact, if it hadn't been for the outbreak of the Civil War, he might never have left and eventually become the famous writer we now know.  But back to the story of his name.  When a boat captain was not sure if his vessel could pass through certain depths of water, he would drop a weighted measure, each degree marked with a special name.  Mark Twain was the minimum depth the riverboat paddle wheels needed to travel safely to their destination.  It was a favorite name amongst captains: Mark Twain."

When my father said that name it always rolled off his tongue with a certain resonance...with the love he possessed for the author, and for the teaching of his stories, year after year.

And now, as I put my pen to the page, only months from my father's death, I hear those riverboat captains still calling across the Mississippi: "Mark Twain...."

The depths that are necessary, the depths by which we choose to still travel forward to our port.