Yesterday I wrote about what brought me to New York and my first visit to the US Open. That part of my life journey began just a week after I received my degree from Syracuse University — a small-town kid who felt overwhelmed at a big college now was moving to the Big Apple!
Although Syracuse was a mixed blessing and I have not been an active alumnus, it wasn’t entirely a grueling match that I won in a tiebreak.
Time helps put life in perspective, and having survived tough decades as a young gay man, I’m growing fonder of those years! I give a lot of credit to all kinds of people who had their own struggles but reached out the best way they could to someone like me. Their gestures were sometimes light as feathers, but gave me all kinds of hope. They inspire me to do the same with friends young and old, whether I know them well or fleetingly.
I’ve been thinking recently of two professors whom I barely knew.To be perfectly honest, I’ve even forgotten their names. In the past few days, I’ve tried to find out online what happened to them without being obsessive about it. I haven’t had any luck, but I can still thank them.
One professor taught medieval history, a subject I should have liked, but it was in the early afternoon, always a tough time of day for me. I would drink coffee before class, psych myself up about the turbulent, exciting times in Europe. I sat up straight near a window, pen and notebook ready, and then would feel a tap on my shoulder from a classmate or wake up with ink on my face after I had drifted into dreamworld.
This patient professor never embarrassed me by calling me out, and always answered my questions after class when I had gaps in my notes. About two months into the course, he told his students he had cancer and would finish his teaching career at the end of the semester. I had a very tough time at Syracuse in my first year, and I went home a few days early for the holiday break. He gave me an extension on my final project, and, after I mailed it to him, received just a few days later his thoughtful notes along with an A.
The professor lived longer than expected and taught another semester. Then I lost track.
The other professor taught Hemingway, Faulkner, and other American writers of 20th-century fiction. His teaching was understated, gently ironic, subdued. I was one of the youngest in a small class where to my eyes and ears everyone was smarter, far more insightful, looked like they belonged. To my great surprise, I did well even though I rarely spoke.
During my year in New York City working in a German law office, I realized I needed to move to Europe and live my heritage. I sent applications to graduate schools in Germany, applied for any job where there was even a remote possibility I might be considered, and was all set to work for a while as a gardener for a friend of a friend. Then I realized I was in the running for a Fulbright and needed a letter of recommendation from a professor.
I took a train to Syracuse over spring break and found very few people on campus, but did see the professor who had trained me to have a keener eye for symbolism in Hemingway and others. I was floored he remembered me and that he agreed to write a letter for the Fulbright folks.
A month or so passed. I received a letter from Fulbright with news of the schools in Austria where I would be a teaching assistant and could pursue graduate studies. To this day, that news is still a huge shock and it changed my life forever.
Angels have crossed my path many times, often without fanfare. They have sometimes faded into the background, but I remember them even if I have lost track of their paths. I am forever grateful and hope I can help others reach for the heavens while still on this earth.