I rarely write on this blog about my real, actual life. Regular readers probably think all I do is take photos of beautiful places and upload them with some kind of pithy commentary. I don’t really write about my actual life of being a teacher in Boston who also studies Applied Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Today I am going to write about my real, actual life because of a tragic loss I experienced. I found out that a man who had been my professor at the university died yesterday. His name was Pepi Leistyna and I’m going to use this blog to pay tribute this unique and interesting individual who I was privileged to have known.
In 2013, I returned to school to do as I called it “graduate school II.” I reluctantly returned to school, as graduate school one was a trying experience that I sought not to repeat. I thought graduate school II was going to absolutely ruin my life. I was set with my life and I didn’t want to add school on top of it.
So off I went to the school and went into a classroom and saw a man wearing pants that had a rope as a belt, a shirt that looked like it had been washed about 800 times and running shoes. As soon as I entered the classroom, he started talking about Pickles, George and Susan. Pickles and George were his cats and Susan I would soon find out was his wife who had died very suddenly and tragically about two years before I entered the program. He also uttered the words that I used as the blog title.
The class was called Theories and Practices of Language Teaching. Having been to graduate school before, I dutifully did the readings week in and week out until one day I came in and realized that Pepi hadn’t gone over them and was probably not going to go over them. Every week Pepi regaled us with stories about Susan. Susan was the center of his universe and she had died suddenly and rather tragically of an untreatable form of pancreatic cancer. Pepi was obviously still in mourning over her death.
In the midst of all of this, Pepi told us “write your paper.” WRITE YOUR PAPER. IF YOU START WRITING YOUR PAPER LATE, YOU WILL FAIL. He asked us to connect a theory to a teaching method and I had done a short paper on that topic. He hadn’t liked it and hadn’t graded it either. He just offered some random comments. It was supposed to be a section of the paper and he hadn’t liked it.
I went to his office hours and a completely different guy emerged. He had all sorts of music memorabilia in his office and pictures of the Grateful Dead. I happen to love the Dead, so we started talking about that. We got around to the paper and I asked him what to do. He told me write about the school I work in. In all of the years I had been in school, nobody had ever for one minute asked to write about anything that had anything to do with my life. In graduate school one, it was all of this stuff that was related to briefing your undersecretary of state. Suddenly, here was a forum where I could write about my own experiences and connect those with theories. I started reading the theories in the materials he had given us and it all started coming together. I wrote and wrote and wrote. There were moments when I hated the guy for making us write that much, but I did it. The paper ended up being 120 pages long with almost that amount of footnotes. I got an A on it too.
A year ago I took a class with Pepi called Cross Cultural Perspectives and I learned more in that class than I ever learned in any class with anyone. He continued to tell us stories about Susan. We heard about her engagement ring, grade point average, love of gummy bears and how she got starstruck meeting Ed Asner.
Pepi also provided some premium content in that class. A couple of quotes from that class:
1. What if I came in here wearing a dress?
2. There goes Pepi, that raving Marxist!!!
3. So what if I like to wear deodorant that smells that flowers.
4. If you came here to listen to my clothes, you have the wrong guy.
Again, there was another long, frustrating paper to write, seemingly thousands of pages to read. I sent Pepi a draft, which he rejected and said it was too descriptive and not at all analytical. I cried, I yelled. I went back to hating Pepi.
But as I worked on the paper, as I created the examples, my way of seeing the world changed. I saw order in chaos and reconsidered my views on just about everything. I realized how as a white person, I have a privilege in this world and also how our world is ruled by social class and most of all money. I started to look at representation in the world and who gets to say what about what. Most of all I started to see the world in a way that made a lot more sense than it had before. I accepted my own privilege in the world, but I could also, in turn recognize it in others and see how it affected my perception. In short, my view on the world changed.
I wrote a second paper for Pepi, received a second A.
In November I went to a party in the applied linguistics department at UMass. I saw Pepi for the first time after he had been my professor and he gave me a hug. We talked about Harvard football, skiing, the Providence Bruins and I realized I really wanted to build a friendship with this man after my schooling was over. Maybe I had found another mentor that could guide my career. It was a fun and engaging evening that I hoped to repeat again. We even took a cheesy selfie together.
Sadly, that turned out to be the final time I would see Pepi. An hour before I found out that he had died, I was trying to (unsuccessfully) convince my boss of an idea that Pepi had advocated. When I found out he had died, I was utterly shocked. I was in the middle of Downtown Crossing surrounded by police and fire trucks. It felt like something out of a movie. I was trying to call somebody, anybody to tell them what had happened. I spent the afternoon reeling from this piece of news.
Somehow (and I don’t know how this happened) today was the day that I volunteer in the soup kitchen. Pepi taught us to treat other people with dignity and frequently spoke about the people that society had forgotten about. I thought a lot about that tonight working at the soup kitchen. I guess it was fitting, almost poignant that this was the evening I was to do that. Maybe it was just a coincidence or maybe it was fate, but somehow I felt like I was doing something for Pepi, something he would be proud of.
Rest in peace, Pepi Leistyna. For a man who always felt left out and unloved, you left a legacy of admirers and people who will never forget about your ideas and passions in life.
A night at the soup kitchen. For Pepi: