My favorite student died over the weekend. His name was Brian Johnson. I know I’m not supposed to admit to having a favorite student, but Brian was an extraordinary student, and a kind, generous man. I met him in my Introduction to Literature class two years ago; he and his best friend Michael were the anchors in the class, meaning I could consistently count on them to discuss the assigned readings. Brian’s analytical skills were terrific; he just needed to learn the literary vocabulary with which to discuss his ideas. He possessed natural writing skills; he just needed someone to infuse him with confidence, and teach him how to use the literature itself to prove his ideas. In the middle of the semester, the apartment building in which he lived with his “Pops” burned down. He came to see me the next day, worried his assignment would be late because his textbooks had been destroyed. Most students would use this as an excuse to not hand in assignments, but Brian merely asked for an extra week so he could read the assigned short stories in the library. When I handed him a new textbook and dictionary, he was thrilled, and I knew he was a man who not only cherished his education but also truly enjoyed reading and learning about literature.
Brian was a Psychology major, but I persuaded him to take my 20th Century American Fiction class in the fall of 2008. By October, he had become a double major, in Psychology and English. At the end of that semester, he wrote a publishable research paper on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. As he tackled subsequent upper-level Psychology and Literature courses, his desire to learn increased, as did his grades. He often stopped by my office to show me a paper he was working on—with pride I realized his writing skills had improved to the point that he could share his knowledge with other students.
In the fall of 2009, I hired Brian as a Peer Tutor as well as a Work Study Student for the English Department. I saw him every day. He called me “Miss.” On Mondays, he asked about my weekend. He talked to me about his son, who lived with him every weekend. He laughingly told me how he had been convinced by an infomercial to buy the “Your Baby Can Read” DVDs; he figured it wasn’t too early to show his son the importance of words. He loved movies—we laughed about the fact that he and Michael were probably the only two people who traveled from the South Bronx to the Upper East Side in order to see Woody Allen’s new movie. He also loved reading. Faulkner and Poe elicited his enthusiasm—I think because they reveal the darker side of human nature, which stimulated Brian’s thoughts as connected to both psychology and literature. Oftentimes Brian stopped by my office, smiling his sweet smile, to show me a book he’d found at The Strand—the novelty of inexpensive books, used but in perfect condition, never wore off for him.
Brian had been thriving as a Peer Tutor, and in my Insane Characters in Literature course this semester, his intellectual curiosity and academic confidence were apparent not only to me but also the other students. Last week, Brian asked me about graduate programs, and together we looked online at grad programs that would incorporate his love for literature with his interest in psychology. He was thinking about teaching, or counseling in a school setting. I was looking forward to writing an amazing letter of recommendation for him.
On Saturday, Brian was alone in a room and had a seizure, and he died. To say his life was “full of promise,” or that he had a “bright future ahead of him,” is a gross understatement. Brian didn’t command attention when he walked into a room, but you knew he was there. He possessed a quiet dignity. His subtle optimism and thoughtful generosity affected the lives of those around him, especially mine. Brian was the type of student who made teaching exciting and worthwhile, and I can’t bear the thought of teaching on Thursday nights without him sitting beside me. I have been an English professor for the past ten years—no student has earned my respect and affection the way Brian did. I guess my grief will eventually subside, but I won’t stop mourning him. The world was a better place with Brian Johnson in it.