A great man died.
And yet, though my tears have been falling all day, part of me doesn’t quite know why I’ve mourned him so much. Brett Foster, one of my writing professors at Wheaton College, was a beloved teacher and a kind man. Still, I did not know him well.
I want to memorialize him with my words, but I don’t think he’d mind at all if I used this opportunity also to be self-reflective. In fact, I think he’d be amused. If he could, I think he’d sit down next to me at the kitchen table, look over my shoulder, and say, “Huh. Yes, why is that so?” He’d chuckle softly while my fingers tap lightly on the keys. And he’d probably take a sip out of one of his mugs (because, at least as long as I knew him, he never used a thermos.)
It’s fitting that the death of this man who taught me everything I know about poetry (which, by no accident of his own, is still not very much) should drive me to write. It’s fitting that the man who, along with the team of other soulful and soul-filled literature professors at Wheaton opened my heart and my mind not only to words but also to work, should bring me back to words.
And I say it again: I did not know him well. Other than the class I took with him, the office hours of encouragement, the every now and again hello on campus, and the almost five years since I left that place, I have nothing. My grief feels almost voyeuristic—as if it does not belong to me, and I have little right to the tears that keep coming. I don’t even remember his words. In memory, all I have of his classes and his person is an impression and a feeling. And the desire to create.
It’s there, in the center, that I find my grief. I didn’t need to know him well for him to have an impact on me. I am a teacher now (though I never would have believed it) and I am already starting to understand that it is not the words you say that they will remember, but the way in which you said them. It is not the point you are making, or the facts you spout, but the way they feel about the work. B Fost, as we lovingly called him, was the perfect example of this. Sometimes, in class, he would be mid-sentence when I suddenly realized I had no idea what he was saying. His words and his point were so convoluted that the thread was knotted somewhere long since tripped over, and the class was lucky to catch up to him and pull him back to the present. On papers and poems, his writing was so cramped and hard to read that half of it was lost to the netherworld.
But all I ever wanted to do in that class was try. His enthusiasm was infectious. Half the time I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway. And, tripping over his threads and my own, I found in his energy a lifeline to my own interests. I shot from that class into other classes, encountering both professors and authors I liked more. He smiled and nodded, and asked me how I was doing, and asked me to stay in touch.
More than anything—more even than the curiosity of his own BMX past that kept freshmen audiences interested—the man could write poetry. Poetry that both met you where you were, and nudged you gently forward. Just as he himself did.
All I can claim is the memory of empowerment, and the introduction to something new. My grief is nothing to the grief of those who truly lost a friend and family member. But in the wake of his passing, Dr. Foster has reminded me that there is no limitation on sorrow, and the roots of a life go deep, and they go far. This man, this poet, this great friend of a theater ensemble I love, gave me a gift of knowledge that I will always cherish, and if he gave it to me, who took only one class with him, I can only imagine how many more received far greater gifts from his life.
As he wrote in his own poem, Isaiah 43, he certainly went out singing.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele