Nostalgia has its pitfalls. Today I was thinking back on my college years, reminiscing on some of the teachers I was lucky enough to have met on my path to higher education, when a Google search result hit like a hammer to the chest:
OBITUARIES: Landon Coleman, master playwright.
He was only 50 years old.
I first met Landon Coleman on a Tuesday morning. It was a cool day – fairly rare for September in the South – one of those days where the wind hints at the winter to come and energizes a mind beaten down by the summer heat. I was twenty-seven, and newly returned to college after ten years of [unsuccessfully] trying to convince myself that a man could live on a cinema salary alone, and suffering the raw, clutching ache of a newly broken heart. It was the first day of my first semester back, and my first class – at the heretofore ungodly hour of 9:00 A.M. (theater workers despise the dawn) – was a core requirement Speech 101. I had shuffled into class like a decaffeinated zombie, plopping into the first available seat to bury my head in my arms and pray for a power outage to murder the infernal fluorescents, when in breezed one of the most charismatic and, to this day, influential men I have ever known.
Mr. Coleman was not your typical community college professor. He was average height, sleekly built, with high cheekbones framing a chiseled, clean-shaven face, a strong aquiline nose, and absolutely perfect hair. He looked like a soap opera star. It was the kind of face that humbled high school athletes, and set the undergrad girls’ hearts aflutter, but there was something about his eyes that bespoke a fierce intelligence, a wickedly sharp sense of humor, and a personality that would little suffer superficialities. He was imperious, in a way, and the authority of his presence commanded both immediate attention and respect.
And, boy, did he get it.
He introduced himself to the class, and immediately set about teaching us the business of speech. Rather than start with the normal first day of class chatter – syllabus skimming, book recommendations, final expectations, etc. – he started off by announcing that he was going to deliver a few facts about himself (graduate of Brown, accomplished playwright, newest member of the Humanities faculty), before going around the room asking us to do the same. For each student, he demanded more than just a name and a hometown – he asked about jobs, family, dreams and goals; prodding gently, yet forcefully, for a well thought out response. It was a little intimidating, but also a little thrilling as it became apparent that his questions stemmed from an apparent sincere desire to know who his students really were, rather than just see them as a collection of souls passing through a mandatory checkpoint. He treated everyone respectfully, even those students who did not return the favor (the ones you knew would soon be dropping the course). I left the class duly impressed with both his personality and intellectual dexterity.
But it wasn’t the end of our introduction. I had an hour to kill before my next class, and had wandered into the Humanities building to followup on a chat with my English teacher about an idea for a paper I wanted to write on Irish literature. As she and I discussed possible directions for the paper, Mr. Coleman had returned to his office and after puttering around for a few moments, wandered down the hall to join us. It seemed he’d overheard us reciting the names of Irish writers, and the mention of Seán O’Casey had piqued his playwright’s curiosity. He asked if I had read any of O’Casey’s plays, and beamed as I told him how O’Casey had been one of my grandmother’s favorite playwrights, and how she’d quote scenes to me over breakfast.
What followed then was a conversation that not only deepened my appreciation of the man, but simultaneously nudged me down the path to an appreciation of knowledge that I bear to this very day. We talked about O’Casey, and the art of the play, we spoke of the Irish identity, the Troubles, philosophy, history, art, religion, life, all manner of subjects and all linked by the brilliance of his mind steering my memory around a mountain of trivia acquired, but never defined as knowledge. I felt, for the first time in my life, appreciated for what I knew, for all the minutia I had absorbed devouring book after book as my curiosity led my mind down the myriad paths of human experience. He congratulated me on my reading, and in that single hour, I came to adore him for making me feel special, for making my meandering quest seem all the worthwhile for its random approach.
But there was still a lingering shadow hanging over my existence. While I had come to feel welcome in the halls of academia – an honorary, if not actual scholar, as yet – I still wasn’t quite comfortable. My newfound surplus of free time made me antsy to be around people, but my advanced age (and experience) distanced me somewhat from my fellow students, who, for the most part, were ten years younger and just getting started on paths I had already walked. I spent many an afternoon lurking the halls of the Humanities, bonding to my educators rather than my classroom peers, as their acceptance had become something of a drug, their company a conversational fix. But my heart was still bruised from that broken romance, and doubts about who I was and what I was doing came to dominate my thoughts. I could see that I was headed for an emotional collapse, but God help me, there seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it. Every day, the pain piled up, and Hell became a very real, and very present place.
On the day I finally broke, I drifted around campus like a stunted ghost. My eyes red-rimmed from a lack of sleep and a river of tears, my voice hushed for fear a ragged sob ripping forth at the slightest provocation. Self-conscious of my fragile facade, I excused myself from class and went outside to sit alone on a concrete bench, wallowing in self-pity.
As I sat there alone in the wind, I felt a hand come to rest on my shoulder and heard Mr. Coleman’s quiet voice.
“Are you okay, Donny? Do you feel like talking?”
And all at once, the floodgates opened. I unloaded on the man. I recounted my newly failed relationship, my return to a college I was too old for, my discomfort around my fellow students, my isolation and utter loneliness in days now filled with too much free time. All the grief, all the frustration, all the heartbreak, everything poured out of me in a flood of tears.
And he listened.
And when it was all said and done, he put his arm around my shoulder and gave me advice. Real advice. Not platitudes, not forced sympathy, not condescension, and most importantly, not a lecture that featured the words, “Everything will be all right.” Landon understood, better than any other, that what I needed to hear was truth, not commiseration; practicalities for loneliness and insecurity that never denied the facts of their existence, but showed a way they could be embraced and incorporated into a path forward. He offered to become a Virgil, of sorts, to my battered and bewildered traveller.
The immediate need, he suggested, was to try and find some way to fill my empty hours with something other than self-reflection – to direct my emotional energies elsewhere as the callouses reformed on softer tissues. He spoke of the things he knew I was interested in, and offered suggestions on how I could apply those interests on campus. And at that moment, my true collegiate career was born.
I left our conversation with a head full of ideas and a sense of direction I didn’t know I possessed. Within the space of a couple of hours I had joined the Honors Society, become an editor for the inaugural issue of the school’s literary magazine, joined the Student Government Activities Committee, started an evening film series, and became a member of an Academic Bowl team (literally assembled half an hour before departure to the first meet – we won), volunteered as a reader for the blind, and transcriber for teachers moving their writings to electronic media. In short order, I went from having far too much time on my hands, to 12-hour days filled with activity and engagement. I flourished, and even though there were times when the heartache returned, or my head throbbed from over-committment, I found that inner peace I had so desperately wanted.
It was Landon Coleman that gave me that gift, and for that I am ever grateful. Thinking back on those times now, I realize just how much I had come to love the man. He was a teacher, to be sure, but in a way he was a spiritual father as well. He helped me find a love not only for the beauty and mystery of the world and its creatures, but how to recognize those things within myself for the times I ever surrendered to doubt and fear. I am still a fragile being, broken in places that someday I’ll be able to explain, but thanks to Landon, I know the pathways out of the pit, and up the mountains and into the light.
Rest in peace, my dear friend. I will never forget you.