I read this poem, On the Death of a Colleague by Stephen Dunn, in college, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. My step uncle is an English teacher, and he mentioned that he took away different things from The Catcher in the Rye when he read it at different stages in his life. I had the same experience with this poem.
My main takeaway from it when I first read it in college was the courage and honesty of the student who spoke near the end. He called out what many people were thinking but avoided saying – that the theater teacher had an alcohol problem which ultimately was the cause of her death. And the image at the end where students in the audience gravitated toward the one who spoke highlighted that this honesty was something that literally pulled people together. They needed to acknowledge it to grieve. I mostly identified with the student, which was probably easy and obvious because I was a student then.
On reading it recently, I thought about what I would say as a colleague in this gathering. The faculty all told only positive stories and actively avoided the negative. I asked myself if the student was able to be honest in a way that colleagues weren’t able to because he had less to lose or didn’t have to be as accountable for the impact of his words compared to the faculty. But I think the thing stopping the faculty was only some self-imposed politeness about “not speaking ill of the dead”. I thought about what the deceased would have wanted. She was a theater teacher who didn’t shy away from difficult pieces. In the first story that a colleague (the narrator) tells, she “placed her hand where the failure was” when he was having a hard time speaking from the diaphragm. She would have wanted someone to tell the real story.
In fact, I think the entire poem is her trying to communicate through other people. She guided other people’s voices as a theater teacher, and she coached the narrator through speaking from the diaphragm. He could only do it lying down. And he couldn’t tell the whole story in the gathering. He also said he had avoided her for months. Only one of her student actors could tell the difficult truth, not because he had less to lose, but because the teacher worked more closely with him than with her colleagues. I came away realizing that the teacher was the protagonist and spoke very clearly through those close to her.