Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Barry Hannah's Legacy

My life has been a blessed one. I've been presented with countless opportunities to learn, grow, and explore my possibilities.

One of my greatest opportunities was presented to me in the form of a senior literature course at Ole Miss.

The professor teaching the course was none other than the infamous Barry Hannah.

It was considered, among the many literature fanatics taking up residence in Mississippi, an honor to sit at the feet of the such a high-esteemed writer such as Dr. Hannah.

Our class met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, in a small room near the center of campus, stifled with stale humidity.

It was a constant challenge to arrive at least twenty minutes early, as the class roster was at full capacity, students clamoring to stake out a front-row seat for Dr. Hannah's lecture.

The class was meant to be devoted to film noir, but as apparently was often the case with Dr. Hannah's classes, the topic more than often progressed towards the aspect of becoming a better writer.

My notebooks, many of which I still have, were filled of colloquialisms and literary tips provided by the professor, rarely a mention of the intended subject matter itself.

He was a calm and inviting gentleman, the years of alcohol use etched into his weathered expressions.

Traveling alongside him was a rolling canister of oxygen, a direct contradiction to the soft pack of Marlboros he kept tucked in the pocket of his well-pressed button-down shirt.

To that end, he took his time getting to class, and almost always arrived precisely ten minutes after class was intended to begin.

Perhaps the most important advice I gained from him was that writing should never be adapted to an audience.

"You must stop writing knowing that your mother will read your words," he often instructed. "In writing for others, we lose sight of the message."

As the semester hammered on, I remember looking forward to my bi-weekly meetings with the legendary professor, never once missing one of his classes (which, for someone with an average record of less than stellar attendance, was a miracle).

By the time our sessions had come to an end, no one was ready to say goodbye to Dr. Hannah.

The last day of class, I remember everyone staying half an hour later than usual as we all soaked in the last of the great professor's words of wisdom and asked our own individual questions surrounding our own writing styles.

Over Christmas break, when grades were due to appear online, I signed in to the university website to view my own.

Next to "Film Noir", an "F" appeared.

I panicked. There was no way that could be right. I had earned A's and B's on all of my assignments in Dr. Hannah's class.


Frantically, I dialed up the registrar and was able to obtain Dr. Hannah's home telephone number.

I called him at once, hurriedly explaining the situation at hand after he picked up on the third ring.

He calmed me down and asked me what name I had been signing on my assignments.

At once I knew what the problem was. He had submitted his final grades as they applied to the formal names listed on the class roster.

Dr. Hannah knew me by my nickname, not by my formal one. He simply hadn't made the connection between the two.

He apologized for not making the correction, and assured me that he would amend my grade accordingly.

Three days later, the "F" still appeared in the system. I called him again, and he apologized again, more profusely. He assured me that he would contact the academic office the next day.

Two more days passed, and I grew even more frantic.

My final grade remained incorrect.

I had just completed my last semester in college. With an "F" in this course, I wouldn't be able to graduate.

I waited another day and called Dr. Hannah's number again. This time, it went straight to his answering machine. I left a polite (but obviously agitated) message asking for him to return my call.

Several days later, his number popped up on my caller ID. I answered it, and was greeted with the voice of an older woman at the other end of the line.

"Is this Mary?" she asked. "I'm Dr. Hannah's wife. I'm sorry for taking so long to return your call. My husband had asked for me to let you know that he was able to correct your grade with the English department yesterday afternoon."

With a sigh of relief, I thanked her profusely and asked her to thank her husband as well.

Calmly, the woman explained that Dr. Hannah had passed away the evening before.

I felt my heart drop.

From his death bed, this sweet man had actually made it his mission to make sure I graduated on time.

Instead of spending his last days with his family, my professor had made it his personal mission to tie up loose ends for a student he had only known for a few months.

I immediately offered my condolences and assured Mrs. Hannah that her husband had meant a great deal to the students whose lives he had touched.

To this day, I still remember the lessons Dr. Hannah taught me.

In his life, as well as in his death, this man was as much a hero to me as one of the characters in his stories.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a great story--that was really wonderful of him! Your writing is great too--thanks so much for sharing!

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