I May Have Learned More from My Mentor’s Death Than His Life
I have had the benefit of only a few mentors who have taken an interest in my achieving my potential. None of us really ever does. But some of us are encouraged more than others to exert ourselves with confidence we will prevail. And that makes all the difference. We come much closer to the possibility.
Twenty-one years ago, when I was a full generation younger, I was guided in my job as a professor by my colleague the late Andrew Taslitz. What I learned from him surprised me, especially what he had not intended to convey.
Taz, as he was called, was impressive for many reasons. Only a decade older than I was, he was much wiser.
First of all, he adapted to an institution neither of us would have expected to be in by building bridges. He demonstrated how to do so when I was hired there. A white Jewish working-class kid from New York City, he had made a home at the leading historically black college/university, Howard University in Washington, D.C. His commitment to civil rights was not abstract. I have met more than a few people who are activists for progressive social change whose own behavior is animated rather more by impulses that span the range from petty to selfish. Taz was gracious, humble, positive, and kind. I’m sure he must have been occasionally frustrated, but he never let on.
Second, he was dedicated to others. He was patient with me, and I did not know then as well as I do now how able I am at disrupting the equilibrium around me. I saw how he was the type of teacher we hope for, who bonded with students, with the enthusiasm for imparting his expertise that must be genuine to be effective. His attitude sustained him. (He was named to the “best of” list in a book about law professors.)
Third, he was productive at a pace that would awe any academic . He exceeded expectations even after tenure, if anything becoming more prolific. He wrote articles and books, presented at conferences, and served on government commissions. His ideas were repeated sufficiently to be influential, but not recycled so as to be played out. He collaborated with others, enjoying the company of his co-authors. He was a workaholic’s workaholic.
Eventually, my aspirations led me to other pursuits than a professor’s. As a higher education administrator, I wish for more Tazs: someone who embraced all aspects of his job, as an altruist, and who stays calm whatever the politics.
Yet the most important life lesson that Taz passed on was after he passed away. It was in death — a struggle against cancer that followed various health concerns that had plagued him — that he affected me as only someone who had been exemplary could. His widow, Patty Sun, grieving with their two dogs in a house that no longer had his animating energy, posted a note to his Facebook page. (Yes, he was active on social media as well.)
Patty, who had been a steadfast spouse throughout their careers, expressed rare anger. No doubt gender roles are implicated here. After having accompanied him as he lectured about criminal law to various audiences, in lieu of taking actual vacations, she revealed how much she missed him as well as how she resented that they had not had enough time together. Although many partners share that same regret when they are left alone, what made her lament so poignant was that the very characteristics of Taz’s success might have contributed to his demise. He was busy in public for laudable reasons, not so much to satisfy his ambitions as an intellectual but to achieve his vision as an idealist. That meant he was less able in private to attend to the person he himself undoubtedly regarded as the most significant.
That is what gives me pause. We can choose role models from among celebrities who are strangers to leaders whom we as followers have met to individuals who are friends. Even those with whom we are well acquainted, however, have responsibilities only vaguely apparent to us. They have families to care for and their own needs. If we emulate only what we can observe, we will not have done right by them or ourselves — too much of life is, and should be, off-stage, quiet, invisible, contemplative, spiritual, in the company of intimates, and even on occasion solitary. I am not critical of Taz. I felt I was a close colleague and we socialized as work friends do, but I had only a glimpse into how he was when he wasn’t at the office or in the classroom; I would have imagined that even at those moments he was no different than if he had been at a desk or behind a lectern.
I am grateful that Taz helped me. I appreciate as I would not have expected that he also, through his wife, warned me. Our strengths are our weaknesses. People who love us, and whom we in turn love, deserve and need our attention, which must come to a natural end.( courtesy : Frank wu)