To Sir, with Love: How Do You Thank a
But when college ended, my connection to the teacher I'd adored did too. Strangely, I never imagined it could be any other way. So it was a true shock to me that we came to be within inches of each other, 24 years later, in a small stationery store near my apartment in New York.
He was in a wheelchair, pushed by an aide; still wild-haired, but hollow-eyed now. He was buying pencils. Our eyes met, and I believe that something registered for him, however vaguely and silently.
I approached him and blurted out everything I wished I'd expressed sooner. I felt ashamed that I'd never attempted to contact him. He was unable to speak, and I'll never know what, if anything, he understood.
Desperate to offer something, I told him I would send him some music. I had ultimately opted out of a career as a poet and had built one in the music business instead. I'd just produced a beautiful recording with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and I thought the soulful music might soothe him. Maybe I even thought it would heal him. I asked the aide for his address; it turned out that his apartment was two blocks from my own. I promised to send him a package and told him how much it meant to see him again. I made my purchase and began to walk away.
Then I turned back, knelt beside his wheelchair, and whispered words I had learned and loved because of him: "That is no country for old men. The young / In one another's arms, birds in the trees… / Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect."
Were his eyes now wilder with comprehension, or were they the same? Those words might have meant everything, or they might have meant nothing. It was impossible to know.
I walked home sobbing as hard as I can ever recall. I mailed him the Yo-Yo Ma CD the next day. I never heard from him or saw him again. I learned of his death a few months later.
I don't know what killed him. It seems unlikely that it was tuberculosis or syphilis or typhoid, however much he'd earned a 19th-century poet's goodbye.
Laraine Perri is a writer and Grammy award-winning record producer who lives in New York City. This is her first essay for O.