R.I.P. Reynolds Price: To One Of The Last Great Professors

Reynolds Price is a world-renowned author and playwright. He’s won the National Book Critics Circle Award, been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and wrote the lyrics to the James Taylor hit “Copperline” (something I didn’t know until today). He passed away at the age of 77 at his home in Durham, NC from complications after a heart attack.

But that’s not why I wanted to talk about him. I wanted to talk about him because he’s the greatest professor I ever had, at a time when great professors are a dying breed.

I’ve always been a great bullshitter. I was the type of kid blessed with the ability to write an essay two hours before it’s due, turn it in, and get an A. Even if I had merely passing knowledge of a subject, I could touch on enough key points and give enough specifics to get away with essentially faking my way to a good grade. I took a class with Mr. Price, and the first paper I wrote, he handed back with the following comment:

“Except for the astonishingly bad prose, some good ideas here.”

I went through a swift bout of self-righteousness– how dare he call my prose astonishingly bad when he doesn’t even know me? Who the hell does he think he is??

He actually cared. He wanted me to work harder, to prove to him that I was a good writer. If I had my motor running and pushed it, I would succeed, and if I didn’t, he would keep writing mean things to me. We live in a world where the professors give things checkmarks or “completion grades,” or they hand things back with a laundry list of irrelevant comments whose main point is to give the professor a sense of superiority over the student by proving a depth of knowledge. Some write nothing at all.

Here was a man who, in one sentence, kicked me in the ass and forced me to become a better writer, a better worker, a better man. It wasn’t an insult– it was harsh swift judgment mixed with encouragement. I was wasting the potential my ideas had by merely half-assing them right before class.

The class was called “Two Gospels: Mark and John.” Mr. Price was obsessed with the Bible, primarily from a literary standpoint. He referred to it as “the most successful narrative in the history of the world.” He was a Christian, but he realized that the Bible had the same agenda as any persuasive biographical bit of literature– to tell a story of a man’s life, highlight the good points, and convince the reader that this man was worth giving a shit about. No story in the history of time was more successful than the one Mark wrote. He provided his own translations from the original text, one that in no way was attempting to convince or wax poetical with fluffy language like most of the Bible translations you read. He wanted one that was succinct and to the point, that would show you didn’t need poetry and updated parlance to understand and appreciate the economy and the brilliance of Mark’s work.

The class was open to everyone: in my class I had strict Christians, casual Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and those who didn’t know what to believe. He treated everyone exactly the same and stuck to the text, with an emphasis on deep analysis of word choice and story choice– why are some stories in some gospels, why are others left out altogether and only included in apocryphal texts, etc. Our one assignment for the year was to write our OWN 40-page gospel: tell the tale of Jesus to a contemporary crowd with one goal in mind– convince the reader that Jesus is the Son of God and is humanity’s savior. We had to base our gospel in stories from the text, but we could be as creative or bold as we wanted to be. This wasn’t a religious assignment– this was Propaganda Writing 101. Everyone in the class understood and embraced this assignment.

I wrote mine from the perspective of the man who is blind until Jesus puts mud in his eyes and he can see again. An apocryphal gospel suggested to me that he may have become a disciple, so I wrote the story from his perspective. It’s two stories that weave together: the things my character sees himself, and the tales of past events that the disciples tell him on the road between miracles. This way, I could write from multiple points of view. Think Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying with a Memento-esque structure.

I SLAVED over this assignment. I let my other classes go by the wayside– the man who told me my prose was astonishingly bad, the award-winning writer who spoke so brilliantly and hilariously in class was going to enjoy my gospel. I’d become friends with Mr. Price, albeit casually. I asked him to come to the musical I was directing– he agreed. He was in a wheelchair, so his seats in the back of an auditorium were less than ideal, but he came anyway and was very encouraging. How many non-theater professors would give a shit about a student’s theater endeavor? This guy had been teaching classes for decades, how was he not jaded by now?

For the final day of classes, he invited the whole class to his house for lunch and drinks. He lived in the woods in Durham, right across the street from Coach K. He has a huge plot of land but a very small house, filled to the brim with memorabilia of people he’d met in his life. Loads and loads of photos and letters. It would’ve seemed cluttered to the ill-informed– to me, it radiated a life fully led. We talked about his life, movies he’d seen, previous gospels he’d read… he was generous and kind to all of us.

He handed me my gospel as I left the class, sealed in a manila envelope. I shook his hand. It was the last time I saw him in person. I didn’t open it– I was afraid of what he might say. I had an A in the class, but I’d done all my classwork and participated, and knew that even if my gospel had “astonishingly bad prose,” it was good enough to merit a solid grade. I left the house and finished the year without opening it.

After the year ended, I found the envelope in my desk as I was unpacking my dorm to move. I finally opened it– I needed to know. He wrote me pages of detailed analysis of things I’d done right, things I could improve, every one of them insightful. At the end, he wrote that it was one of the top gospels he’d ever read in the history of his class, and he’d made a copy for himself. He encouraged me to keep writing. No parental encouragement or props from a friend ever felt so good. As a professor, he didn’t blindly agree with everything I said nor did he shoot me down. He knew how to be friendly while also commanding respect, how to cut a student deep without damaging them, how to encourage students with criticism instead of the ass-kissing that so many teachers give kids nowadays.

He’s one of the main reasons I want to be a writer to this day.

I wrote him an email right before graduating to tell him what I’d been up to (I was to be in a musical and was going to get my masters) and how much I enjoyed his class. He wrote me back right before the graduation ceremony:

“Dear Russell – Belated thanks for your generous words. I recall both you and the outlines of your gospel very well; I was sorry to miss seeing your spring musical (right?), and hope I’ll someday get to see more of your stage work.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to know you’re headed off for a good MA. Please do keep me posted on your life and work. At the moment I’m buried, as you may well guess, in apocryphal gospels and Milton term papers; then a week of business and pleasure in NY in midMay. But I should be home by late May and would be glad to see a play of yours–not more than one at a time now please! (I’ll be returning to work on the memoir–the longest hardest job I’ve ever attempted, though a fascinating one).

Are you visible this summer? And if so, where are you? I seem to recall Charlotte was your home, or am I wrong? In any case, if you ever get to Durham, I’d be glad to have you stop by the house.

Till whenever – All the best hopes from Reynolds P.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wouldn’t be in town that summer, so foolishly, I simply didn’t respond. I could have kept that correspondence up and learned so much from him, but instead took the easy route of moving on with my life. I wrote him back towards the end of my two-year program, telling him specifically that it wasn’t just that I enjoyed his class, but how his comments had motivated me and how he’d inspired me to do better. He wrote me back right away:

“Hey Russell – Thanks so much for taking time to send those generous words along–very few students ever do respond to a teacher, and I recall your presence clearly; so what you’ve said means a lot: I even recall using that word “astonishingly” about your prose! It’s hard to think you’re halfway through your stint up there.

Do let me know if you get back down here. I’d welcome the chance to talk.

Yours – Reynolds P.”

I moved back down to Durham a year later to work for the theater department… but I never contacted him again. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was too absorbed in my own work, in my relationship at the time, or maybe I was simply too much of a loner to try to re-connect with someone I’d lost touch with. Regardless the reason, I regret it very deeply. I missed out on the opportunity to keep up with someone extremely special, someone who I can’t contact anymore. When I found out today that he died, I couldn’t get past the pain of knowing that my own stubbornness or ignorance or stupidity had prevented me from learning from this genius, this really kind and interesting person. It makes me miss all the fun I had with him in that class.

I tell all of my students about this class that I took and what kind of teacher I hope to be while I’m still teaching. I hope that you or your family gets to have a professor in college who was half the man Professor Price was. I’m going to miss him.

R.I.P. Reynolds Price.

~ by russellhainline on January 21, 2011.

5 Responses to “R.I.P. Reynolds Price: To One Of The Last Great Professors”

  1. As a Plant High School and Duke classmate of your grandmother, Diana, I received a link to your essay. She is so proud of you and your writing! It is a very beautiful tribute to Reynolds Price and what a caring professor he was. Your feelings are some that all people can relate to, the missed opportunity to see or call someone when we could have. We’ve all done it. The good news is that it makes you aware of the need to take advantage of that opportunity when it becomes available with someone else. There won’t be another opportunity with Dr. Price,but there will be another opportunity sometime.
    I am not a good writer and hope you will understand what I’m trying to say! Louise Burnett

  2. Very nice tribute. Feel lucky that you had the opportunity to know and be taught by him. And I’m quite certain that he would not want you to feel badly that you did not keep in regular touch with him.

  3. I worked briefly with Reynolds on the magazine. I once submitted a poem for his consideration and he told me it showed insight and a great sense of imagery. It was a poem that could be interpreted two ways. He saw what must have been a smirk on my face and asked me, “O.K. Just what’s so funny?” When I told him he burst into laughter and said, “Thank heavens you told me! We certainly can’t put THAT in the magazine. He did enjoy the laugh, though.

  4. I was searching for some information on Price’s gospel assignment, which I had run across reading his “apocryphal gospel” in Three Gospels (I’d love to write or teach something like this), and ran across your post here. I had little idea what an impact Price had on his students. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to read your post.

  5. […] once had a professor (who I’ve written about at length on this site) who told me that The Gospel of Mark in The New Testament was “the most successful story ever […]

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