The other day I was contemplating graduation, which is fast approaching in May. I decided I would write to a few influential professors before I left so I could thank them. James Halsted was the first on that short list. This isn’t so much an elegy. It’s just a thank-you note I wish I had written a long time ago.
I wanted to tell him that in just one semester, in just one class, he had an impact on my life. I wanted to tell him that he took ideas and feelings that festered within me for a long time and put them into words.
He died of cancer Thursday before I had the chance to tell him.
I also wanted to thank him for his emotionally driven lectures on industrialism. They shaped the way I perceive people, and the reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock that went along with it was especially poignant. Reciting its famous third-to-last stanza verbatim still makes me feel smart.
I wanted to thank Dr. Halsted for teaching me about the nature of the herd mentality; it has helped me better understand patriotism, religion and how so many thousands of people still root for the Devil Rays.
I wanted to thank him for the time he read an impassioned 10-minute excerpt from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra while Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (better known as the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey) played ominously in the background. It was the most intense 10 minutes I have ever spent in a classroom.
I wanted to thank him for the time he made up a few classes he missed due to his illness by having us meet at his house on a Saturday morning. I thought it was absurd how he stood at a podium behind his pool, beneath the twisting slide that dipped into it. And we all sat around with our feet in the water and listened on for hours as he trod through the entirety of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. And, yes, the sun was hot, but when he re-enacted the murder scene at the conclusion of Part One, the irritating sunlight on my forehead made Meursault’s peculiar condition seem all the more real. And the pizza and soda he provided for the 16 students he entertained that day was good, too.
I wanted to thank him for the time he bought that pass that got me into that Phi Beta Kappa dinner in downtown Tampa. It helped me scoop a story for the paper. I also wanted to thank him for not ripping my head off when — like a conscientious journalist — I politely refused to eat the meal for which he shelled out $30.
Lastly, I wanted to thank him for embodying this overwhelming notion we vaguely describe as higher education. He didn’t accomplish this simply by administering the toughest tests I have ever taken. He achieved it with passion, conviction and a loud voice.
Back in spring 2002, I found a picture of Dr. Halsted on the Internet, which I downloaded and then haphazardly doctored a pair of pink bunny ears to it. Two of my fellow classmates and I — who had been cramming for his final — affixed the picture with tape to a punching bag staged in my living room. Periodically, one of us would rise and release a barrage of jabs and kicks on the effigy. It was a simple exercise in the Nietzschean will to power, we rationalized, one the ideas sure to pop us on his exam. Besides, it kept us sane while studying his for test.
That picture still hangs on my refrigerator.
Now that Dr. Halsted is dead, I guess it sort of serves as my own personal memorial of him. But instead of punching or kicking at it in jest, as I did a few semesters ago, I’ll probably stop in front of it every once in a while, reflect on this note I should have written before he died, and simply say, “Thank you.”
Ryan Meehan is a senior majoring in literature and is The Oracle’s Editor in Chief. firstname.lastname@example.org