Since coming to Ithaca College, I’ve lost three students. Michael Clark is the only one who was taking a class with me at the time of his death. Experience has not made grieving any less painful, but I’ve learned that sharing it makes grief bearable. By writing this tribute to
Michael, I hope to contribute to the process through which we who knew Michael can transform our grief into memory, and transform memory into an enduring part of ourselves.
From the first time Michael spoke in my Medieval Literature class this semester, I knew I was on alert. Very quickly, I learned the signs of an impending intervention by Michael. First, he would raise his hand, always by planting his elbow on the desk first. Then, when he had my attention, he would turn his head to the side, regarding me from the corner of his eye, and he would audibly inhale — collecting his breath for the paragraph to come. Whatever he said, I always knew that he was listening, he was thinking, and he was encouraging both of us to
operate at the highest level we could manage. Later in the semester, I noticed that sometimes when he spoke in class, other students were taking notes.
Professors know that the dynamic of a class can be ruined by one egocentric student. But Michael didn’t inspire jealousy or impatience. A student at the memorial service Dec. 3 put it beautifully when she said that when Michael spoke, he “made you like him.” Instead of grabbing the spotlight, he encouraged community. In class, there was never simply a dialogue between me and Michael. He usually took the comments of other students into account, and often he addressed other students directly instead of going through me.
Michael was well-read, curious, philosophical, welcoming to new ideas and unafraid to be original in speaking or in writing. Because he was not worried about grades, he took chances in his papers. In Medieval Literature, I had him rewrite his first essay, which he wrote on a tale in Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” because he was so persuaded of his own thesis that he ignored several key aspects of the tale that contradicted it. The revised paper was a gem.
Michael liked testing himself against difficult canonical authors. He already knew that his career ambition was to teach Shakespeare at the college level, and he was eagerly anticipating studying Shakespeare at the London Center, then writing an honors thesis about Shakespeare under Professor Chris Matusiak. He had memorized passages from Shakespeare’s plays, as well as poems by many other authors. He would have been a wonderful teacher and scholar.
His last paper in my course would have discussed Dante’s “Inferno,” which Michael — whose values guided his reading of literature as much as they guided his relationships with people — approached with a refreshing lack of awe. He didn’t have to be reminded that Dante saw himself in many of the people he placed in his personal, fictional realm of punishment.
I’ll never know what Michael would have said about the second half of “Inferno,” but what I do know is that in these final two weeks of the semester, his classmates have been raising tough questions and proposing sophisticated readings, as if he were still with us.