Rome, Georgia. Summer 1960
In the summer after my first year of teaching, the headmaster summoned me to his office.
“Louie,” he said, “a parent has complained about the list of six books you require returning juniors to read. He says he knows his son will learn to curse soon enough, but he resents paying good money to have you require him to read cursing.”
Quickly I recalled the books I had assigned, but I drew a blank. I was saving Catcher for the fall.
“B.B.B.Bastard” the headmaster stuttered the opening of the book with a wry smile. “Yes, I like All the King’s Men, too,” he said.
“Now first let me assure you absolutely that I will back you up in your decision to require the book. Nothing I am about to say will diminish my support. But do you want some advice from someone who has been trying to do the same thing for forty years?”
I trusted him. He had given several books to me and we had often talked about our favorite poets.
“Can’t you find some other book that will open the kid up just as well? Then you would get his father on your side instead of on your back. You might, for example, simply add two more books and ask the kids to choose their own six. Then let the father battle with his son, not with you.”
I did just that.
The kid was insatiable, read all eight, and later went on to read all of Robert Penn Warren’s books. He battled with his father about Warren and with me about twentieth-century music. I practically forced on him Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony,” and he reciprocated with a copy of Franz Joseph Hayden’s “Missa in Tempore Belli.” “No music after the eighteenth century is worth my time,” he insisted.
So the two of us entered the 1960s, deep behind the Cotton Curtain, segregated by great gulfs from much of our society and quite cut off from much that would later define us. Two years later, he went off to University of Virginia to major in English, and I went off to teach in a liberal boarding school up north.
San Diego, Summer 1993
An elderly woman approached me after I spoke at St. Paul’s Cathedral this July.
“Do you remember a student you had long ago named Doug?” she asked. She gave his last name too, but it rang no bell.
“In the last thirty-four years I have taught well over three thousand students. Doug — hmm. No. I am so sorry, but…
“Well, he remembered you!” she said, smiling persistently. “He said you led him to major in English. He told me that again and again. He graduated from the University of Virginia and later became the chief coroner in Washington, DC. He said the courts preferred him because of his command of English: he had the ability to convey complex jargon into something a jury could comprehend.”
“Doug? Doug! Who went to the University of Virginia?! But I taught him in my second year of teaching, thirty-three years ago. I thought you meant someone much more recent.”
“Yes,” she said, “and I encouraged him many times to call you, but he would not. He loved you very much.”
“I remember, yes, Doug, whose father objected to my assigning All the King’s Men. Where is he? Does he live here?”
“He told me that he knew I would see you some day, and he told me to tell you that he grew up gay.” “Doug? Where is he? May I see him? Does he live near here. Yes, he didn’t like Mahler but introduced me to ‘Missa in Tempore Belli…'”
“As an Episcopalian, he was enormously grateful for your work with Integrity [lgbtq Episcopalians],” she continued, as if she had escaped some disaster.
“He knows about that?!” I asked.
“Yes, and he was awfully proud of you. I met him at a healing service at church. I was only a stranger, and I don’t know why he told me, but he said he was dying of AIDS.”
“Doug?! Doug?! Who read every word of Robert Penn Warren! Not Doug!”
“We became very close.” she continued. “He said to me many times, `Why couldn’t I have had a mother like you?’
“I just did what any Christian would do. His mother preceded him in death, and his father wouldn’t even speak to him after he told them he was gay. They cut him off completely and would not even allow him to come home. His father was so ashamed of him, even after he graduated from UVA and became a famous doctor.
“Look, here’s a picture of the two of us together, and I’ve made a copy for you of his obituary. He told me he wanted you to have these. I am here by his mandate.”