Yesterday I woke with a clear objective.
I suddenly had the overwhelming instinct to email a drama professor who taught me at university from 2013-2016 when I’d studied English and Drama in London. I had been meaning to reach out to her since I graduated, but for some unfathomable reason I had never got round to it. The years slipped by and like a blade of grass plucked completely at random, it was that day more than any other that I was finally ready to re-open that line of communication.
When I google searched her name in the hope of finding her email, I found that she passed away seven months ago. She could’ve only been in her early 40s. I started writing this piece because I had no other place to put my words.
I wasn’t really set on what I was going to tell her, but it was something along the lines of a sincere thank you. She had marked my dissertation in my final year (titled ‘David Bowie and the Artistry of Sexuality’) and during that time she had shown me such unwavering care and support. She opened my eyes to not only what a teacher was and could be, but how a person could wake every day with a purpose and make a dent in it. And she taught me that almost overnight.
I wanted to tell her I was so grateful for that. I wanted to tell her how much I admired her – a queer woman and scholar who wrote about LGBT representation and voices in the field of Shakespeare, as well as in wider theatre and performance. She held such an important and respected presence in that space, and yet she still gave so much energy and time to students like me. Students who couldn’t get their brain to work, who constantly toed the line between not turning up or not actively tuning in. Students who were just floating on, out of the loop, forever playing catching up.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I can recognise it fully now: University chipped away at me and reframed the way I think. It reversed all that I thought I knew and made me reconsider everything – from the way I structured the sentences I speak, to the way I sit in a room, to the attention I give to concepts I don’t understand. It was a series of evaluating me and what I considered important, as much as it was an evaluation of the books I read. It was professors, like her, that taught me far more than what is on the page. If I went back to university now, there isn’t many things I would do differently, but I wished I could’ve told my professor what I now know, reflect on the years in between and tell her that she made me kinder, better, more empathetic, hopelessly and perilously open.
This situation got me thinking about the unique relationship between professors (as well as teachers or mentors) and students. It is a dynamic like no other we have in our lives. It is formalised and professional, and subsequently it feels strangely undeserving to grieve the loss of them. It is different to how we might grieve our family or friends, though there are definite crossovers. And it is different because, in many ways, we don’t really know who our professors are, or know any real details of their personal lives. But, in so many ways, we are exposed to much more in them – we share something far more important.
At the core of English and Drama studies is examining how we think and feel – how those emotional states relate to the world around us, how it ties into the societal, historical, physical context of that world. Stripped down, literature and performance is an attempt to translate and understand human behaviours, relationships, why we exist at all. Naturally, this meant that the conversations I had with my professors, especially during university, were never surface level. With every seminar or lecture we unwrapped subjects that I would rarely approach with other people in my life. It was like we skipped the mundane small talk and immediately dove into examining our beliefs as they curiously questioned why you thought them.
This can be a very intimate thing, because it is confronting. And I felt the same way when I read through the tributes of my professor, with my heavy too little-too late heart. Isn’t it strange? I kept saying over and over to myself. For a small, intense raindrop of time in your life, you delve deeply into these subjects with professors and suddenly you graduate and leave them behind in the lecture hall as you step out and go on to someplace else. In the first couple of years after graduation, everything was busy and heady and exciting – my mind was set on change and I hardly thought about my professor at all. I would be reminded of her sporadically, and distantly think, as if I was in a sleep-state, ‘I need to email her and tell her what I’m doing’.
Well, we know how that turned out.
The truth is I don’t remember what my professor said to me now, on the day that marks almost five years since I left university. It’s her smile I remember the most – quietly kind, matched with eyes that shone with compassion. Her impact on me was colossal and permanent, even though our dynamic was constructed to be temporary and fleeting. It was always meant to be this way. Isn’t it strange?
I missed out on paying tribute to her, and I missed out on sending her an email to say thank you. There is a void in me that I can’t ever fill because of that, and I’m sure my professor would have something interesting to say about it. The only option I was left with was to write this academic-ish essay on it – the type of essays of mine she used to read – and one which I imagine she would read with humbled joy, if she could.
Thank you, Dr. Catherine Silverstone. Thank you so much.