Friday, July 18, 2014

Again, he is very old

Note: Last night my synagogue, Congregation Torat Emet in Bexley, Ohio, held a tribute in my honor. Several friends spoke, and several more friends, who could not attend the evening, wrote small things about me. The most unique—far and away the most amusing—was written by my former student Michael Schaub, one of the best young literary critics in the country. A regular contributor to NPR whose work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other journals, Michael graduated from Texas A&M University in 1999. He now lives in Austin.

by Michael Schaub

I first met David in 1996, when I enrolled in a class he was teaching about the American novel at Texas A&M University. David, who is a master of self-deprecation, would argue that this was the first of many bad decisions I made as a new adult. He would be wrong, however. I had already made several bad decisions that year. But taking a class from David was the only one that didn’t end with the involvement of police officers or doctors. And it was the only one that worked out in the end. Despite David’s best efforts—he mocked my politics; rolled his eyes at my brilliant teenage analysis of Henry James, who I considered quite the square; and not-so-gently criticized my tendency toward rambling sentences (this one’s for you, David!)—I loved him instantly. I still consider him to be like a father to me—not just because he taught me how to be a human being, but also because he is very old.

Those of you who have never taken one of David’s classes might not fully appreciate the experience of being his student. Imagine a fever dream, with a slight, well-dressed, bespectacled man constantly screaming at you, sometimes in Yiddish. He would smile slightly when he agreed with your analysis of a book, and smile hugely when he didn’t. I think he truly preferred the latter. If you were wrong, he would launch into a perfectly-reasoned, erudite discussion of everything you had just said, and then close with making great fun of your Clinton-Gore ’96 button and urging you to read more Commentary magazine. (I had never read Commentary before I met David; I had only heard of it because of my reactionary Jewish grandfather. By which I mean David. Again, he is very old.)

I can’t say that I was David’s best student, but I like to think I was one of his favorites, although he’d deny it. I am, I believe, the only student who inspired him to throw a book across the room (and directly at my head) twice. I am a large and unathletic man, not capable of sudden movements even when faced with imminent heard injury, so the only reason I escaped unscathed is because David has pretty terrible aim. (A little-known fact: Sandy Koufax actually once asked David either to stop throwing things or convent to another religion.)

When I learned that David had cancer, I reacted the same way I’ve always reacted to bad news: with denial. That’s why I’m writing this the same way I wrote all of my term papers for David’s classes—at the last minute, trying not to cry, while my roommate smokes marijuana and listens to Sublime. (OK, not the last part.) If I get too sincere, too sentimental, David will literally board a plane to Texas right now and start throwing books at my head, so I’ll keep this short: He didn’t just teach me how to be a good person, and he didn’t just teach me to love literature, he also, quite literally, saved my life. I really do love him like a father, and that’s not just because he is very old (which he is), but because he taught me how to be brave. I’m not there yet, obviously. But when I do get there, It will be because of him.

He taught us all so many lessons, and it’s impossible for me to thank him adequately. I wish I could be with him tonight, not just to tell him this in person, but also because I just bought a “Ready for Hillary” t-shirt, and I would love to see his reaction when I walked in wearing it. He would, of course, start throwing books at me. And I would just stand there, because he couldn’t hit the Great Wall of China with a ping-pong ball, even if he was standing one foot away. I mean, I can only imagine his aim has gotten worse. Because, as you know, he is very old.

And he’s also one of the best people I’ve ever met. I think I can speak for all of us (excluding a few dozen university deans and administrators) when I say that my life is better because of him. David, I know you can’t abide this sentimental stuff, but you’re just going to have to deal with it tonight. Thank you for everything. I promise I won’t press changes for the flying books, and not just because the statute of limitations has expired. You are a great man, and I love you.


Unknown said...

"I think I can speak for all of us (excluding a few dozen university deans and administrators) when I say that my life is better because of him."