Rights in the Matter

By Michael Pronko

Theodore Roethke (1953)

“Elegy for Jane (My student, thrown by a horse)”

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

The first time one of my students died, it caught me so unaware I didn’t have time to react. The chairperson of my department stopped me on the stairs and told me the news. My mind flew back to my last conversation with her in my office, and then my mind scattered in all directions—practicalities, confusions, thoughts, when’s, ifs, could-I-have’s. I went to the student affairs office to get directions to the funeral service at the crematorium in western Tokyo.

At the funeral hall, I spoke with her father, acting as a representative of the university that would be—was—her final social connection, her last institution on earth. I offered him my few Japanese words of consolation and sat down with her classmates, their heads bowed and pale, all dressed in black. Many of them I knew, but I didn’t know they had been her friends, but then what did I know of her life? Almost nothing.

She was writing her graduation thesis on American architecture and had taken a trip to Chicago to photograph buildings there. She was compact and energetic, her feet barely touching the floor when she sat in my office chair, and full of energy, bouncing like a much younger girl. She was unbelievably cute, with dimples that made you smile back. And she was just finding her voice in English to talk about her thesis and her dreams after graduation, more study and travel. She was more hesitant than most of the other students at the private university in the middle of Tokyo, but every student is hesitant in some way.

Photos of her taken by her boyfriend punctuated the flowers lining the funeral hall. The poses felt alive. She was just as striking in black and white and two dimensions, but I had to look away. As the ceremony began, I tried to be calm and strong for the other students, for the family, for myself. But all I really did was sit there. At the end of the incense lighting and chanting, her father gave a short speech, one of the most impressive acts I’ve ever witnessed. Though as a teacher I talked in front of people all the time, I could never be half that strong. What could be harder than to speak at your own daughter’s funeral?

As the family slowly, numbly, pushed her casket down the center aisle towards the furnace, the potent scent of incense and flowers drained the blood from my head and I had to breathe through my mouth. I looked, looked away, looked, away. Students stepped up to the casket to drop in flowers, cards, books, and photos on top of her small body. They touched the casket and covered their face with both hands, shaking, shocked, doubling over, folded in half by grief. The family pushed her body down the silent hall.

And then she was gone.

I gathered the students and we struggled into our heavy black coats out to the bus to the train station. One student, silent as we rode on the bus, burst into tears after a few stops on the train. Everyone around us on the train eyed us, sympathetic to what was obvious—a student had died, far too young. I held his elbow to steady him and another student took his arm from the other side as tears dripped to the floor. We swayed along on the crowded train, joined in grief.

I kept wondering if I might have done better by being closer in some way, mentoring, helping more, advising her more fully, more personably. Did I just not ask her the right question? Not say the right thing? I never thought I acted cold or removed, but my confusion seemed to be marking out the distance I kept from students. What was I supposed to feel? Where does a professor fit into the life of a student? I really had no idea. This wasn’t about me, but then again, it was. It was about everyone. University meant universe, all of it.

I had never imposed strict rules of engagement like some of my colleagues—demanding to be called ‘professor,’ refusing to listen to private problems, concealing my own life. I’d always given out my email, joined LINE groups, friended on Facebook, coughed up stories of my youthful mistakes. I invited my seminar students to my home for barbecues, figuring that for Japanese students, the experience of dealing with a foreigner was part of their education.

But more than contact, casual or formal, being good for them, I always found it fascinating to talk with students, as human beings. Academic aloofness might seem dignified, but to me it was boring. I liked knowing their life outside the classroom. Now I knew their death, too.

Buddhist rituals for funerals often involve distributing salt in a small envelope for ritually purifying oneself. After her funeral, instead of throwing the salt in front of my door as I was supposed to, I placed the envelope on the bookshelf over my office desk—a reminder to maybe not be so pure. Instead, I wanted to be less guarded, more human, to pay better attention and not be afraid of knowing students as individuals and letting them know me.

The second student who died, several years later, was easier to get close to because he was interested in things I loved—rock music, Beat Generation writers, stand-up comedy. He had this way of getting deeply into the class material, but staying indifferent to the concerns of most students—job hunting, fashion, boyfriends/girlfriends, Disney. He was, like I had been, a bit of an outsider.

Like me, his difference from other students seemed to come less from distance to schoolwork than closeness to life outside school. He worked, had friends, performed, read non-required books, went to concerts—my same itinerary when I was a student. I lent him books and DVDs, shared advice on what to read and watch, where to travel in America, trying to keep his curiosity stoked and fed.

At the service, I met his seminar classmates at the train station, and bumped into some of his friends I had informed about his death. We rode together to the crematorium, located inconveniently far from the station—an inconvenience that allowed us a few, insufficiently few, moments to prepare ourselves.

After signing in, I expressed my condolences to the family. His father led me right in the hall and up to the open casket. I had responded to the inner vitality in my student so much over the three years he took classes with me that I started to talk with him in my head as I looked at his face below the glass. But the fact of his face there told me he wasn’t going to jump up like some ironic practical joke in the films he watched. He was not going to America to travel or study again. He was not going to graduate school. He was not going to finish his graduation thesis on stand-up comedy. He was dead.

For most of the other seminar students, this was their first experience of a peer’s death. I didn’t want to tell them that it never gets better, that it’s always painful, always awful, that the images, feelings, regrets and anxieties linger in your head for years and years and never disappear. It’s not something you get better at. A death is when life moves on before it can be understood.

The ceremony was lengthy because so many people came. Towards the end as the casket rolled past, we stood in two lines, memories and feelings roiling inside us. In our funeral clothes, all of us looked much the same in the face of death—like we all were part of one big black eye. We were a black hole of feelings. The casket filled with flowers and mementos as his family, classmates and friends wailed, loudly, forcefully, unceasingly. The family rolled him away and we turned to watch him go and then turned away.

Afterwards, the students and I lingered outside the hall by a corkboard covered in photos from his life. We were all of us somewhere in the photos with him—at parties, on last class days, in workplaces, on stages, in selfies. We walked back and forth in front of the corkboard looking at him, ourselves, his friends, his places, his experiences, the brevity of his life. And as we looked back and forth, reluctant to leave, part of us, part of him, was dying still. His interests were so similar to mine, I felt a bit of me die.

As I stood waiting for the bus back to the station with the students, I asked them what they had been doing in the half-year since they graduated. Their seminar had finished the April before, though he had stayed for a fifth year, acting as a TA and planning for grad school.

The students in his seminar talked about work mostly, and how hard it was to be a shakaijin, a member of society. It wasn’t just getting up early every day, or working late. It was more the difficulty of working with other people. One woman had quit already. Another said she would work for two years, then go back to school if she could. Others seemed satisfied, others not very, and most of the problems in their post-student life revolved around working with others.

They reminded me that as a professor at a Japanese university, much of my interactions, most of my relationships, are scripted. But not all. It’s the ‘not all’ part that is so demanding of energy, time, thought and emotion. As a professor of literature, what comes up in classroom discussions again and again is emotion and ethics, feelings and decisions.

That’s what stories are, after all, practice runs at life’s big, mean questions. At some point in most of my classes, we list the great themes of the novels on the board and students are always good at shouting them out as I write. They know already. When death comes up in class, it always feels distant and abstract, a thought more than a feeling. Knowing from stories and knowing from life are two sides of the same river.

The novels we read in that seminar were little help in the face of real death. Isn’t it the funeral of a student, a classmate, a friend, a relative what literature should help us with? It’s supposed to help us understand the nature of the world. It’s supposed to give us some warning of the shoals up ahead. We might not all be Hamlet, but we are all surrounded by friends and enemies, poisons and swords, truths and lies, and lingering, whispering ghosts on the parapets. We all hesitate to act and crave direction. We all want warning and explanation, but rarely get them.

Teachers often joke about being eternal students, always learning more from the people we teach than we give to them. The lessons I usually get from my students vary from insights into human character and the perennial frustrations and procrastinations of youth to decisions on jobs and life directions. I didn’t like being taught about the core fact of our existence—its end.

Theodore Roethke’s poem came to mind when I frantically re-read the email informing me of his death. I checked to be sure they meant him, calling the university office to confirm, and then, unsure of what to even say to her, I called his mother to offer what I hoped would be consoling words, stumbling over the right phrases in Japanese. The poem came to me, not word for word, but in pieces. After the funeral, I searched for it online.

I first read Roethke’s poem in an old anthology from which I borrowed material for classes when I first started teaching. It was written for a student who died while Roethke was teaching at an east coast girls school. I didn’t have a copy of the anthology any longer, but I remembered the painting on the cover by Magritte, called “The False Eye,” a huge black dot in the middle of a cloud-filled blue sky, an eyelid lining the inside of the frame, perceiver and perceived reversed.

In his elegiac poem, Roethke used the word “love” to describe his feeling as he stood at the grave of the student. But that was in a different, more innocent time. The 1950s was long before that word became coded as inappropriate for workplace relationships and re-categorized as something to be avoided. Never saying that became a safeguard against abuse and harassment in relationships of power. Fair enough.

But until an acceptably politically correct word comes along, one sanctioned by institutions, that fits all the legal and professional demands of the current world, I think it will do to sum up the flow of feelings that made these deaths so tragic, that makes any death tragic. It’s the same set of tangled, unnamable feelings that make teaching such a joy the rest of the time—graduations, parties, job acceptance, a high grade or just very well-done work.

After the funeral, I read Roethke’s poem over again, alone in my office. I looked out my window at the lights of Tokyo in the distance. Then I printed out the poem in a tight, sharp font, cut away the white space around the words, and stuck it with a magnet onto the bookshelf over my desk below the small envelope of salt from the first funeral, in the half-empty place where I store my hidden feelings about teaching.