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My View: Michael understood the meaning of life

By Dan Schwartz

I met Michael Brandys in my business communication class. The class was filled, but Michael, an older, returning student, kept emailing me, and he eventually wore me down until I force-registered him. It was one of the best moves I ever made.

Most of the students in the two classes he attended were 18 to 20 years old. Whenever I would mention something from more than a few years ago, the students would look at me as if I were suddenly speaking Chinese.

Michael sat two or three rows to my left, and I soon learned he would back me up by nodding and saying something like, “He’s right,” or “I remember that,” until he became my amen corner.

We had after-class discussions and would sometimes walk back to my office. We’d talk about the frustrations of being a single parent, and balancing multiple jobs while attending school. We also discussed one my favorite topics, sleep deprivation.

I recall one discussion we had about one of the first assignments, a short story titled, “The School” written by Donald Barthelme. Michael got the story right away.

In the story, a teacher named Edgar is trying to teach an elementary school class, but everything – and I mean everything – he brings into his classroom dies. Goldfish, a salamander, plants and trees, even some of the parents and students pass away until the very young students start asking impossible questions about death to the point where they start sounding like the precocious kids on “South Park.” Here’s an excerpt:

“One day we had a discussion in class. They asked me, where did they go? The trees, the salamander, the tropical fish, Edgar [the puppy named for the teacher], the poppas and mommas, Matthew and Tony, where did they go? And I said I don’t know, I don’t know. And they said, who knows? And I said, nobody knows. And they said, is death that which gives meaning to life? And I said, no, life is that which gives meaning to life. Then they said, but isn’t death considered a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of –

I said, yes, maybe.

They said, we don’t like it.

I said, that’s sound.

They said, it’s a bloody shame.

I said, it is.”

I remember Michael saying how much he liked that story. He said, “Everything dies, but instead of giving up, or we stop trying, it tells us that trying or building some things becomes that much more important.”

When we discussed it further in a class, Michael explained it to, and discussed it with, the other students.

Too many students ask the three questions professors hate: “Do we have to know this?” “How long does the paper have to be?” And “Will this be on the test?”

Michael was already way beyond that. In other words, he got it. He understood that education, teaching and learning are far more than that. He transcended all that. He got it right. He really got it right.

In one of our last conversations, we talked about job prospects. I told Michael I thought he’d make a helluva teacher or professor. He said he didn’t know if that’s what he wanted to do.

In the days that followed his untimely passing, there was a hole in those classes. I’d look over to where he sat, and he wasn’t there.

Michael’s passing, if anything, serves to remind us that we all act and react as though we’re all going to be here forever, or at least a very long time. In some ways, even if we are, we aren’t.

We just have to try to make the most of whatever time we now have and whatever time we have left.

Dan Schwartz, J.D., Ph.D., is a multi-award receiving educator teaching at Buffalo State College and Niagara University.
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