Max C. Milligan.
Sometimes as a teacher you begin the semester and you don’t know why you are teaching anymore. It’s the first day and you ask the students in your literature class what the last great book they read was. You have snarky student athletes that respond, “Doctor Seuss. In the third grade. Heh. Heh.” Sometimes they defiantly tell you they don’t need to learn to read and write. They’re gonna play ball and hire accountants and PR people to do that stuff. Later they come up to you and ask, ‘what do I need to get a C-?” It’s disheartening and you can feel yourself beginning to unravel. You teach at a community college in the literal middle of nowhere. You make less than no money in a dead end job. Despite all your professional development, publication, public speaking, your department offers you a few crumbs and hires safer people. You feel like quitting every moment you are on campus—if no one wants to be educated anymore, then who am I not to throw in the towel and surrender the culture? We are, in these times, living the fall of American culture and American fortitude. Gumption—that old fashioned word for an old fashioned value—is long gone. What do we do this thing called teaching for if they aren’t even going to try, what are you doing this for?
Last semester I walked into my English 102 class and the only thing saving me from utter despair was the fact that there were a few faces from my English 101 and 10 classes. I had found a small cohort of engaged students—I knew in my second to last semester of teaching, I would fall back on them to sustain myself. There were also a a few smug usual suspects who asked things like, ‘we don’t have to read an actual book in here do we?’ I had enough students with souls to balance this. I would be okay, I thought.
And then in the second row on the right hand side, I met Max Migillan. He was scruffy, and pale, and hooded with strands of an unkempt beard, and had that too many Dungeons and Dragons games look about him. I was sure he was going to say the Lord of the Rings was his favorite book. He said he liked some classics, some horror. And though none of that matched my taste, there was a glint in his eye that was magical , ignited, engaged. I took an instant liking. The semester would be saved.
He was slower to like me. I’m a pretty no nonsense kind of teacher; I expect them to meet me half way and I don’t consider something a classic just because a dead white man wrote it. Nothing is quite universal to me and everything is at the same time.. I’m also Chicana and a take no prisoners feminist. I am too old to care about assimilating into white culture anymore and I’ve stopped trying. I care deeply about literature though, and when they write papers, I require depth.
But by the third week, he seemed to be pretty hooked.
In a few short weeks, I’d won him over and he started to do things you hope every student does. He not only read every poem, story, play, assigned but he also asked for more. He did all optional readings. He argued with me about interpretations. He wanted to know about film. He wanted to know about memoir. About graphic novels. It was as if suddenly he was truly awakened and he needed to experience everything at once.
His writing improved too. He got things and saw things that other people really couldn’t or wouldn’t see. You can assign a student reading; you can assign a student writing. But either that student has a soul and can see with it to the very depths of being, or he cannot. Max. Saw. And. Felt. Everything. He. Read. He lived with it. He digested it. He was the type of man literature was made for in the first place.
He fucking got things. Do you know how many students —for reasons of our culture, laziness, or lack of trying just don’t even try to get anything? We teach among the walking dead. The zombies want to pass with a C. They don’t care that they are reading someone’s heart. Someone’s crestfallen sorrow. They don’t care that they are reading beauty; that they are reading the infinite and the time less.
But Max. Max fucking cared. He digested it. Poetry flowed in his veins. When we read Arab-Andalucian poets in class, he came up afterwards wanting more. I lent him a whole book of them. He wanted to know how poetics lent themselves to film. I lent him Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. He devoured them. In that month when he was feeling tender and isolated, literature and real film did what they were meant to do—provide a feeling of not being alone in the world. He understood words as friends. Comrades in arms. A place of solace. I had no doubts that he would begin to write fiction.
Max made me look forward to going to class. He always wanted to talk about readings and writings and what made the world go around. It had been a long time since I’d had an intellectual in any of my classes of that caliber. I’d almost forgotten what it was like.
When I assigned Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, he said his mind was blown and the possibilities of literature were suddenly endless as the characters themselves. That was how I felt the first time I opened their pages. No longer was literature antiquated and belonging to the anthologized safety of lazy collections assigned with the tediousness of clockwork of sleepy English professors. We talked about books after class. About music. About just how alive it felt to read words that mattered.
He made me a better teacher. I was constantly on the look out for something that would resonate. I wanted him to see the long lineage of words that have saved us, that have brought us here.
I was overjoyed when I saw he’d signed up for my creative writing class this spring. In fact, he was the first student to do so. On the first day, I had them make journals and choose words to tape on to them before I even gave them a writing prompt. Design it. I said. This is you. He talked to me excitedly about the stories he had ideas for that he was hoping to write for the class. We talked about places he might consider sending his work. We talked about publication being a long arduous process and the necessity of having a thick skin to deal with rejection.
It’s like living as a depressive, I said. Our skin is porous and deep and the mundane ignorance and zombies around us have a way of sensing a heartbeat and a brain. Don’t let rejection eat you when the time comes, I said. He laughed and said he knew what that battle was about. He had to fight it daily.
Max is the sixth creative mind I have known that I have lost. Let that seep in. I have lost many friends to death from cancer and various other diseases of the body. I have lost six creative minds to the despair of living with an unguarded open heart and mind. And there have been plenty of near misses with others including myself. It is, as they say, an occupational hazard, to know one’s self deeply and create. I no longer am shocked by such deaths. I now just hope for the best and hope they survive. But I am struck to the core every time. We’ve lost yet another one who could have saved us. And what’s society’s answer to save us? They give us numbers to people in zombie land to talk us down off a wall the zombies can’t see.
Does anyone remember A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle? There’s that chapter where the Happy Medium is showing the kids what happy planets look like and then she is instructed by Mrs. Who, Mrs. What, and Mrs. Which to show the children their own planet. The Happy Medium is reluctant, for Earth is this place always on the verge of the takeover of the mundane, the sameness, the unthinking, the blatant consumer, the sports watcher, the passive. The children are horrified by the dark shadow, but they notice there is still light and hope. What brings light and hope they ask aloud and all the characters begin to chime in on answers. Shakespeare. Jesus. Buddha. Picasso. And the list goes on and on in that paragraph of people who thought, people who loved, but most importantly people who created. Painters. Musicians. Writers. These are the people helping to combat the darkness. But that means of course, they are the closest to the battlefield, the first to be injured in the fight. The causality of this ongoing war.
Dearest Max of the brilliant mind and soul—the student who made me happy once again to be a teacher—may you have safe travels to the other shore. May you find a light in the darkness and be at rest. Your battle is done. Thank you for bringing the light you could into this dark, dark same world.