Monday, July 20, 2015

Die another day

I died on Friday, albeit at a younger age.

A college campus is a time machine. At least once a week I see someone from my youth, un-aged, and unaware of their role in my past. They are typically not exactly as I remember, but seeing a forgotten walk, smile, or turn of phrase will send me instantly back to high school or college, reliving incidents momentous or trivial. One day I was sitting on the school bus with Lisa. A week or so later I was looking into the first friendly face I saw when I started college four decades ago, hundreds of miles from home.

Sometimes they are enrolled in my classes, and I gain insights that I couldn't have had when I knew their older dopplegangers. I have an inkling now why Joey wanted to be a Marine. I can make an educated guess why Vickie always wore that sad face when she thought no one was looking, and why Valerie never dated much.

Once in a great while, they are me. We know from science fiction that it is dangerous to encounter one's past self, though to this point I haven't found it to be a problem. We do tend to work a little harder on these kids, pushing them to avoid the pitfalls that we fell in, or grab the opportunities we let slip away. It almost never works. I think one source of confidence for teachers is that we learn that youth is youth, and the mistakes we made were more or less inevitable. They accompany youth as surely as sagging skin and stray hairs come with age.

Ben was me with a harder life, and was consequently stronger with more scars. Like me, he had wandered a bit in his youth. Like me, a setback had put him on the path that he was seeking all along, and he had nowhere to go but up. He was going to be a college professor, and he would have been a good one.

Ben was my student and my friend. He was my "there but for the grace of God."

Vaya con dios my friend. We will not see your like again.
Last year Ben started having problems with heartburn and occasional sore throats. The doctors at the clinics he could afford told him to take antacids and change his diet. By the time he put together the money to buy insurance and get proper tests, the clock was ticking on his final half year. He managed to finish his degree, and he was enrolled in graduate school this Fall, but I think we both knew he wouldn't be there.

Ben's story of redemption ended prematurely early Friday morning, and I have been at loose ends since I heard. This is not how his story is supposed to end. Besides being robbed of the triumph he earned, he left behind some people who really needed him to survive. But whether God, the Fates, or simply cosmic dice, I know by now that there is no term in this equation for what we need. We get what we get, and it's up to the survivors to make sense of it.

I suppose the sci-fi writers are right after all. As my father used to say, we learn something new every day.