This is a story I haven’t told before, but my reasons for not telling have changed a few times over the years. At first, I didn’t think it was significant. Then, a few years later when I realized it was, it seemed a bit too late. After that it felt vaguely embarrassing, and then I more or less forgot about it for a few years. Now I realize that it is important, although not in the way I used to think it was. But now I’m burying the lede, which seems doubly inappropriate given that the protagonist of this story is an English professor.
I was a bit of a wreck in college, of the type that isn’t immediately obvious to others (although, to be fair, who wasn’t a wreck in some way or another?). Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time singing with my a cappella group and going out and drinking X nights a week (where X was two during freshman year and increased to five or six by the end of senior year). I just didn’t do a whole lot of what college is ostensibly about – studying, reading, or really even attending class. I once showed up to a midterm and surprised one of my best friends, who didn’t know I was in the class with him because that was the first session I attended. That class was in my major, a field in which I now hold a Ph.D., and I got a B-something. I graduated in four years, never went on academic probation, and wasn’t all that far off from graduating with honors. This has at least as much to do with Ivy League culture as my own abilities.
My late nights were only part of the reason I rarely attended class (or completed minor assignments, or wrote papers more than one night ahead of time, or, or …). Every morning I’d wake up with absolutely no desire to do anything but go back to sleep, so I would, often late into the afternoon, classes and other responsibilities be damned. When I wasn’t asleep I was full of vague dissatisfaction that never turned into motivation and never quite went away but did quiet down a bit when I had a ping pong ball in my hand and beer nearby. If I made it to class I could rarely sit still for even a fifty-minute lecture, though labs and discussions were somewhat better.
Enter the (unlikely?) hero: Thomas “T.P.” Roche, salty and beloved English professor. Picture a sixty-something Irish intellectual who specializes in Spenser and shocking undergraduates by describing a Shakespearean sonnet about a lady drinking wine as a “reverse fuck” and you will not be far off the mark. In my junior year, I took Professor Roche’s Shakespeare course, with a special discussion section for theater (or theatre) people. I think T.P. was rather fond of this section and we spent more time, as I recall, staging scenes and pursuing other creative threads than analyzing the Bard.
The class was at 3:30 PM, which I remember well because it was the latest class I ever slept through. The first time you sleep through a class later than noon feels like crossing an indelible line, like the first time you drank beer as a teen or stole something: you are now the sort of person who sleeps through an afternoon class, or drinks, or steals. Once that seal is broken there is a certain self-destructive impulse to continue, because you are already that person, so why wouldn’t you? I became the sort of person who sleeps through later and later classes, including this class.
Near the end of the semester, after I’d missed two or three straight discussion sections, I woke up one afternoon to a voicemail from T.P. While this was neither the first nor the last professorial voicemail I received expressing concern over missed classes or assignments, T.P.’s was qualitatively different. This is my recollection of that message fifteen years later (remember that I was almost certainly hung over at the time):
“Hi Jake, this is T.P. Roche. I noticed that you have not been attending class recently. I have looked for you during lectures as well and have not seen you there. I wanted to see if you were all right. I know a bit about depression and alcohol and wanted you to know that if there’s anything I can do to help, please come talk to me.”
I assume this was stated far more elegantly and wittily, as per his usual, but that’s the gist of it. At the time, I dismissed his message as misguided projection. I was not the type of person who gets depressed or addicted to anything; I was just tired and bored and enjoyed drinking games. But his message stayed in the back of my mind until a few years later when it helped me realize that I was (and am) exactly that type of person. I went to the last few classes of the semester, and graduated the following year, and he never brought it up again – maybe he knew that although I would have thrown away a life preserver given directly to me, I’d eventually see the lighthouse in the distance and swim for it on my own. Or maybe now I’m projecting.
The point, if real life stories ever really have one (especially one this trite), is this: small gestures can and do make meaningful differences in people’s lives. T.P.’s message was certainly not the only thing that helped me break out of that spiral – I have family, and friends, and friends who became family who all played huge roles in that – but it was a moment that stuck with me until I needed it.
To T.P., who has no reason to remember me amongst the thousands of students he taught over his decades-long career: thank you for being a lighthouse.
Jake Bartolone is exactly that type of person.