Saturday, January 27, 2007

He teaches still...

I can still see him, walking in the humanities classroom with that plaid jacket on, looking like a character straight out of a Walker Percy novel.

I can still hear that Southern cadence, born out of the cotton country of West Tennessee, can still remember how his eyes lit up when one of his students (who wasn't an English major, thank ya very much!) knew what he meant the day he came to the front of the room, opened his mouth and said, "Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived."

Robert Drake was a character, no doubt about it. He taught English at UT for 35 years. Life had taken him from Ripley, Tennessee, way out west, to Yale University for graduate school and finally to Knoxville.

The English majors in the Southern lit class that fall made fun of him behind his back. Not being such a species, I loved him. He seemed to like me, too, although he never could pronounce my last name correctly, preferring to put the accent on the "e." But that was OK, because he loved the South and its literature more than any other human being I've ever met.

I didn't get to know Bob Drake all that well. He had a stroke just after Thanksgiving, cutting short our time together. We knew something was up the day he appeared confused during a discussion of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men."

"It all comes together," he kept saying, wiping sweat from his brow. Five days later we learned he was in the hospital. He never returned to the classroom.

Work took me to the Fountain City Branch Library last Thursday. Killing time before Dr. Bill Bass's speech, I browsed the shelves. Like a delightful little time machine, sandwiched between larger tomes, hid a collection of Drake's short stories.

His stories are autobiographical to the extreme (the main character is named Robert Drake). But he has a palpable feel for time and place, like all good Southern writers do, and takes you back to the Depression-era small town of his childhood.

Perhaps my favorite tale is "The Store," a nostalgic look back to the small hardware/grocery store ran by his father and uncle.

"I myself no longer live there," he wrote in the piece. "But whenever I return to visit my uncle, I still see many people... who tell me how much they miss both my father and the store...

"And then usually, in spite of all I can do, my eyes will fill with tears because I have learned, all over again, what it really means to be back home."

Any Southerner who has ever tried to return to a home or a time now gone with the wind knows all too well what he means.

After reading the story, I pick up the phone to call my old mentor, to tell him how poignant his words are. Then I remember. Bob Drake never recovered from the stroke. He died a year or two later.

I didn't go to the funeral.

But I'm glad to have found this slim volume on a dusty shelf during a snowy and frigid Thursday morning. It has been nearly a decade since I was in his classroom. But through his words about coming home, and letting me feel his own bittersweet heartache, Robert Drake continues to teach.

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