For the first time in my life, I received a paper back with a screaming red F scrawled across the top. Embarrassment washed across my face, turning my cheeks nearly the same bright crimson. It was only the second week of the semester. I could drop this class if I needed to. My heart rate tripled as I thought about my options. I flipped through page after page or scarlet ink over whole paragraphs. Then I got to the works cited. This page alone, had two words on it. Good job!
I snapped my assignment face down on my desk to hide the shame and looked around. I wasn’t alone. Other students grumbled to themselves or to each other about their scores. I listened to this for several seconds, finding that misery indeed finds solace in mutual suffering. Our professor sat at the front of the room in silence. I sneered at him. We all did. And he didn’t seem to mind one bit.
★ ★ ★
Five semesters and several classes later, I was still receiving nearly bloody papers back from this man, but my writing had improved a thousandfold. If you want evidence, please read the first several posts on this blog. But seriously, don’t. They’re dreadful.
The man who taught me how to write was loved by students who wanted to learn. To anyone simply seeking a degree, he was the devil. We wrote about sex and religion and mental health and philosophy. About the rules and when or how to break them well. I once wrote a paper for one of his classes in which I made a biological argument for monogamy. I was asked to present it. I blushed as much then as I did when I got that first failing grade from him. It was graphic- but my discomfort was hilarious to more than half of the room. Students giggled, refusing to make eye contact with me while I talked about semen and orgasms.
I spent several semesters, working on six or seven papers at a time, because he allowed (and encouraged) numerous rewrites (for better grades… and to learn what it means to actually write). Many of those semesters were spent on mental health. Our task was to learn to to compose and argue and woo. He got to choose the subject matter, which always ended up being his personal interests. The man ran the Idaho Suicide Hotline for 15 years. While he taught, he was working on a master’s degree in psychology or counseling. His focus? Sex.
His exit strategy from teaching at the university level was to become some sort of sex-therapist or counselor. He needed a change, because he cared too much. His desire for us to learn was largely met with apathy and angry rants on the heinous website, Rate My Professor.
★ ★ ★
About a week ago, the university released a statement. At 67, the man I’d grown to admire had taken his own life.
In one of many side notes regarding mental health, he taught us to refer to it as completing suicide. Because committing it sounded bad. Damning. We commit sins and crimes and faux pas. We’re committed to institutions. It took me some time to realize this, but I believe that the people who become counselors and desire to help those who suffer with poor mental health do so because they have suffered. And clearly, this man had suffered much.
Though he was a harsh grader, he always allowed students to take mental health days, no questions asked. He insisted that students meet with him twice a semester to discuss assignments, but he always asked about friends and family, about how we felt about school. His approach to education was holistic: depressed, hungry, high (etc.) students don’t learn. These meetings took place in his office, which had a rocker chair that he said rested above a trap door, just in case you lied to him or said something idiotic. The shelf next to it contained snacks. From this seat, one could also see a letter, framed and hung with pride. It was from a former student. She was going to school, racking up debt because that’s what she was expected to do. But in one of these one-on-one sessions, she let it out that all she really wanted to do was dance. The letter was a thank-you note. In it, she was beyond excited that she’d gotten a job teaching vacationers to dance on some cruise line. And oh yeah, she was dropping out of school to do it.
I actually could write volumes about this man. His pants were always too high and his socks never matched his outfit. Sometimes, he started class by hitting a little gong he carried around in a beer box. He taught students about life as well as English and grammar and how to not sound like a total fool. He taught me how to write. I’m so grateful for it. I’m thankful for what felt like gallons of red ink and hours of torture that he put himself through while grading my papers.
Thank you for everything, Dr. Peter Wollheim. You will be missed.
So sorry for your loss, friend! This is beautifully written.
If I had one wish, it would be to take a red pen to Prof. Wollheim’s suicide note and write “F, you can’t leave us until this is perfect.” He had a massive influence on my writing, career and adult life. There not adequate words to express this loss.
Justin, as I wrote this (without versions or much editing) I wondered about how much he’d mark it up. I’m glad to hear that he’s influenced your life too.