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For David 4: Be That Teacher

(David Lenson at his sixtieth birthday party, with Bo Henderson. Tobey Photo.)

When I first heard of David, I was a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UMass Amherst in 2000. Every graduate student spoke highly of him then, as they do now and, I am sure, will continue to do so, singing his praise. I was a shy awkward kid; as a former refugee, I didn’t know what I was doing in graduate school. So at department gatherings, I tended to mingle with a few students I was comfortable with and stay away from faculty.

In 2001, I was assigned to be one of David’s three TAs for his “Brave New Worlds” class. When all of us met to go over the class, David was laidback, approachable, and funny. He was supportive of graduate students; if something were to go wrong, we knew he would have our backs. That was clear.

His lectures blew me away. David was brilliant: so knowledgeable about Greek and Latin, about Ancient Greece, but also about the present, about contemporary culture, politics, aesthetics, and philosophy. He was what I imagined a professor to be.  And he was hilarious and witty. I imagined David could argue his way out of anything. A story he once told us in one of his lectures goes something like this: back in the late 60s or early 70s, a student came to his office and took out a gun. David, with just his wit and words, convinced the student to put the gun away. That’s the kind of power that I like to have: the quick thinking of a smart mind and the ability to use words persuasively, convincingly, and wisely.  

Like other graduate students, I couldn’t help but adore and admire him. But it was a secret adoration and quiet admiration. I did what I always do when I like and admire someone. I read their work. So I took out his books from the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. Achilles’ Choice; On Drugs; The Gambler. And I read. And I recognized there was no posturing in his work. The David I encountered in his books was the same David I saw and heard in his BNW lectures. Funny and brilliant, as to be expected, and he did something that I always like. He quoted what the high critics wrote and translated them into something that was relatable and accessible. He was more interested in being accessible and understood than posturing and being obtuse. If you don’t believe me, check out one of his UMass lectures on YouTube.

A few years later, I finished a poorly written meta autobiography and I showed it to David (it’s basically the seed for my first poetry book, Gruel). Poor David read that crap but he was so generous and kind with his comments. He made many helpful suggestions and then he invited me to sit in on a seminar on contemporary fiction he was teaching that semester. And I did. One of the books that we read for that semester truly helped me see the possibility of SE Asian American literature: Lê Thị Diễm Thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For. The author was a guest for one of the evenings. Being shy, I sat quietly and still in my seat and didn’t ask any questions, even though I admired the form that Thúy took in her book.

Because every student wanted him to be on their dissertation committee, I didn’t ask David to be on mine. I’m sure he would have agreed if I had, but the man already gave so much to his students. Instead, whenever I had time, I asked if we could do lunch. And we did. We ate at the University Club. David loved their crab cakes. We talked about teaching, because I wanted to be a good teacher like he was. Knowledge seemed to flow out of him. So I asked, “How did you do it? How did you make all those connections in your lectures and deliver them so effortlessly?” He looked at me and smiled. He told me he got up early to read each book carefully and prepare his lecture notes. This was after decades of teaching “Brave New Worlds.”

One more anecdote: I once saw David play with his group, the Reprobate Blues Band, in a small venue in Northampton. Man, he had so much fun. With his shades on, he blew that sax like a happy madman. And I was so happy for him.

This is just to say: David is a rock star. He’s always been and will always be. I can’t do what he did. Be that teacher. Deliver that kind of lecture. Write that way in that sly double-consciousness voice. Be that mentor and friend.

In this life, I’ll publish that book that he read with such patience and care some twenty or thirty years ago. I will dedicate it to him (along with a friend of mine, April Selley, who was so supportive and kind when I started my tenure-track job at Union).

When we meet again, David, (and we will, it’s the nature of things), I’ll pick up my guitar and strum along while you solo on your sax.

Bunkong Tuon is a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

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