“Really? An email from Stanley Belson?* Really?”
That was my stunned reaction early one morning several years ago when I checked my computer to see what messages had come in overnight — and, much to my surprise, found one from my college English professor, Stanley Belson.
My 50th college reunion had taken place in Boston a week before Stanley’s email arrived. I hadn’t been able to make the festivities, but I’d prepared an update for the Reunion Booklet. Another former student had shared the Booklet with Stanley, who had retired many years earlier. Browsing through the Booklet, Stanley came across a comment I made in the section Memories of Favorite Professors. There, I’d paid him a brief compliment.
He wrote to thank me.
Stanley’s email set off a cascade of memories, a series of vivid snapshots showcasing him in the classroom . . . .
• I remembered Stanley, charged with kinetic energy, pacing up and down, as he discussed the Greek concept of charisma. Cerebral yet passionate, with a trim crew cut, jaunty bow tie, and wiry frame, he embodied the very definition of charisma.
• I remembered him, definitely not a fan of the Romantic literary tradition, pointing with delight to an elegant couplet in a neoclassical work. “Let’s see the Romantics beat that,” he joked. What a treat it was to hear him express his opinion with such zest, so unabashedly.
• I remembered him jumping up from the tabletop on which he sat to take issue with the Romantics’ embrace of the natural world over urban life. Opining that he had found growing up in the city to be just fine, thank you, he described with relish how as a kid he played exhilarating games of stick ball on the streets of Brooklyn as cars whizzed perilously close by.
These indelible, affectionate memories were soon followed by other reminiscences, these later ones full of wistful regret at opportunities I had missed to know Stanley better . . .
- I remembered the time he pulled up in a low-slung sports car and offered me a lift after spotting me waiting for the bus to go downtown. During much of the ride, I (usually talkative and outgoing) remained a speechless dolt, so intimidated was I to be sitting next to the celebrated Professor Belson.
- I remembered passing up the chance to invite him, along with other English majors, to a faculty-student dinner. Why? Because I feared I’d once again be tongue-tied in his presence.
- I remembered my induction ceremony to an honor society where I screwed up my courage to introduce him to my parents, but ungraciously let pass the opportunity to thank him for having been my sponsor in the first place.
- I remembered when I, in my forties, began writing textbooks and how I planned to contact him to thank him for having sparked my appreciation of crisp, well-reasoned prose. I never followed through.
With these disparate recollections washing over me, I sat down to respond to Stanley’s email. Thus began a correspondence that prompted in me many powerful emotions.
On the simplest level, our email exchange gave me the chance to make amends for nagging regrets. For starters, I was able to thank Stanley for sponsoring my election to the honor society, an honor that had thrilled my parents — and me as well, I admitted to him now, though at the time I had pretended otherwise.
And I was able to redeem my decades-earlier failure to thank him when I began my publishing career. Interestingly enough, before I had a chance to apologize to him, he apologized to me for “not dropping a note earlier,” to congratulate me on my entry into the world of publishing. I was deeply touched that, despite the passage of many years, he still regretted he hadn’t contacted me.
I was moved even more when, in a later email, Stanley remarked he was “now keenly aware” that he had “understood little of the inner lives of students,” that he had not been “the sort of teacher in whom students felt they could confide.”
Whether this statement was matter-of-fact or rueful, I didn’t know. But
with this confession, Stanley became slightly less the lofty professor and I the lowly acolyte, the two of us journeying in very different worlds.
Now we (he in his 80s, I in my 70s) inhabited roughly the same world, one where drawing ever closer was “Time’s winged chariot” — a memorable image from a poem he introduced more than 50 years earlier to an English class of blinkered twenty-year-olds.
This sense of imminent mortality colored my reaction to the remaining emails Stanley and I exchanged. In one, he mentioned he sometimes ran into former students while walking his dog. I found myself envisioning him walking the dog, alone on a darkened street, braced against a chilly New England wind.
Of course, he never hinted at anything this bleak. Still, rightly or not, I sensed loneliness and vulnerability; there was an unmistakably elegiac feel to our correspondence.
I had been delighted Stanley remembered me after so many years. But what really touched my heart was that he was delighted I remembered him.
My mention of him in the Reunion Booklet hadn’t involved a lengthy tribute. It was a terse four-word acknowledgement of “the brilliant Stanley Belson.” That was it. Yet it was enough to prompt him to reach out to me, his student more than a half century earlier.
Ah yes. The yearning to connect, not to be forgotten. In one of his emails, Stanley gave voice to that primitive, elemental need. He simply wrote, “Thanks for remembering me.”
*The name has been changed.
Judy Nadell’s longstanding interest in education and literacy spans decades. After 18 years as Associate Professor of Communication at Rowan University, Judy turned to writing textbooks for McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, and Townsend Press.
In addition to being a volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Club, and Literacy Volunteers of America, Judy developed literacy programs for a number of organizations, including Cooper University Medical School.
A founding member of BookMates (an interfaith literacy initiative), Judy trained volunteers, police officers, and teens to read with at-risk children.
She is the creative force behind The King School Series, collection of 85 books for beginning readers; the Series’ characters are based on youngsters Judy mentored in the BookMates program.
Though officially retired, Judy continues to seek out opportunities to teach, believing “once a teacher, always a teacher.” She’s forever grateful to the teachers in her life for sparking interest in a profession that’s brought her much joy.