by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY
This is a shamefully belated post but it’s important to me that I write it anyway. Last summer, a college teacher of mine, Alan Howes, passed away. It wasn’t tragic or sudden; he lived a long, full life, one in which he had time to serve in the army, earn his Ph.D. from Yale, and teach University of Michigan students for over forty years. I don’t intend this piece to be an eulogy in the strictest sense—I didn’t know him well enough—but a meditation on the kinds of things good teachers leave behind when they step out of the classroom for good.
First, a little about Alan. He was not a man who loved the sound of his own voice. Nor was he one of those professors who strive to wow students with their brilliance. Such professorial ego-stroking would’ve been in opposition to his humble nature and student-centered style of teaching. Instead, he created space for students to try out their voices, and if all went well, for them to be brilliant.
When I met him in 1999, he was already old. I remember his hunched-over figure, his leathery hands, and his eyes beginning to cloud with cataracts. He also had a pretty tremendous white beard, on par with John Muir or some other 19th century mountain seer. I was impressed by this beard. But when you’re twenty years old, as I was in ’99, you don’t have a very sophisticated set of criteria by which to understand old people. Either they’re old and wise or old and curmudgeonly, without much space for gray in between. Alan was obviously the former (see beard), and though Obi Wan Kenobi figured prominently enough in my imagination to foster in me an innate respect for wise old men, we learn best from real people, not one-dimensional projections of human virtue. In order for Alan to really get my ear, he was going to have to complicate himself, or rather, I was going to have to complicate him, which, you know, is asking a lot of a self-absorbed 20-year old.
Luckily for me, Alan Howes would not be so easily pigeonholed. Early in the semester, he showed up for class wearing a T-shirt with a silkscreened photograph of himself in the 70’s looking like a cross between the Dennis Hopper character from Easy Rider and some blissed out modern version of St. Francis—in short, he looked like a wild man. The contrast between this robust, long-haired hippie frozen in time and the old man standing before us was powerful. It was proof that his life extended beyond the realm of white-haired literature prof. He was human. Like us. No, wilder than us. And more mysterious too. Also, he was funny. The fact that this soft-spoken old guy would wear a photograph of himself—one in which he looked like a Harley-riding acidhead no less—was funny. And funny is real.