Beyond The Pale

Grad School, Bob Schafer

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, most of it in my journal, but I’m also working on another story or character sketch, something to let me get to know both the “I” and James Whitney of my last post a little better because I think that when things eventually come together, they will be two of the three or four major characters that I’ll be most interested in focusing on, in getting to know and understand.

A third character is the man, Hugh (a prize to whomever can come up with a good last name for him), who is an enigmatic character, something of a loner, and very good at finding rare and hard to come by items. While he himself is, like all my main characters, a sliver of my own personality, the way that “I” meet him in my current understanding of where this story is going is extremely similar to the way that I (the real I) met Bob Schafer in Graduate School. That is, “I” will have a class with him and end up sharing lunch, but where I got Bob’s story, “I” will get Hugh’s which is, in essence, and snapshot of my own.

I met Bob Schafer my first semester at Missouri State. We were both Graduate Teaching Assistants, so we ended up in the same section of an introductory teaching Composition and Rhetoric class that all GTAs were required to take. Bob and I didn’t immediately become friends because he was a non-traditional student, either in his late thirties or early forties, and I have historically had a certain level of scorn for non-traditional students because of their seemingly pervasive idea that their real-life experiences belie the academic experiences of students who have taken the traditional track. Of course, having spent some time out of the academy, I think they might be right, but the attitude is still very annoying.

In my experience, there are two types of non-trads, the incredulous, who think that all this ivory-tower mumbo jumbo is just that, mumbo jumbo, and the credulous, who don’t seem capable of using any kind of critical thinking, honored as they are to be admitted into the academy after “missing their chance” the first time around. Under each of these headings, there are other classes of non-traditional students, some of my favorites being, the retarded non-trad, the disgruntled veteran non-trad, the recovering junkie non-trad, the non-trad who relates everything from Platonism to car starters to the emotional problems of her kids. There are also hybridized classes. For instance, I once had a fellow student who was a required soldier, had an IQ of about 12, and thought that our discussions of English as a Second Language related explicitly to the behavioral problems her eldest daughter had. In one class, I had an example of almost every known type of non-trad in the same room. It was horrible.

There was one type of non-traditional student who was missing from that class. Bob was part of a rare group of non tradional students that I like to call the read-all-the-sources-and-their-sources-non-trad. Sometimes this kind of student can come across as something of a know-it-all, and usually this impression is well earned. Bob wasn’t like this. He had always done the readings, and he had always actually understood them. Most of the time, he had also read at least one of the seminal sources for the reading, and he could as easily explain Plato and Aristotle as I could the function of a coordinating conjunction, but he didn’t flaunt his knowledge, and he didn’t stall class with esoteric questions or pedantic arguments. In fact, the only way that you could tell that he was not a traditional student was that he was old, and he knew more than the other students.

Bob was also weird.

Bob wore a fedora to class. He walked with something similar to a wizard staff. He smoked a pipe. He drank Meade. He made the Meade himself. The weirdness was what originally drew me to Bob. Holly, one of the other graduate students had received a love poem from an unknown stalker by the name of Pablo. After close to two weeks of argument and speculation, it was generally determined in the GTA office that Pablo was an alter-ego to Bob, though Bob claimed that he didn’t know how we got that idea, though he did admit to having delivered the note for Pablo, who caught him in the hall, gave him the note, and swore him to secrecy as to Pablo’s identity. I found this extremely funny. Holly didn’t. I also liked that Bob smoked a pipe, as I had been planning on taking up pipe smoking since my freshman year at CBC and never gotten around to it. Bob introduced me to pipe smoking, helped me choose my first pipe, suggested good tobacco for me, taught me how to keep the pipe lit without burning up the briar, and strongly recommended that I stay away from cigarettes if I didn’t want to be messing with them for the rest of my life. He said that it isn’t that hard to stop pipe smoking, but once you switch to cigarettes, you are ruined. The interesting thing about this is that Bob was telling me this as he scooped an ounce of cigarette tobacco into a pouch for me and taught me how to roll my own cigarette. I guess he figured that if you are going to behave badly, you might as well do it with some class.

It was during the second semester that I was at Missouri State that Bob and I really became friends. We were taking a course on the history of rhetoric together, and every Tuesday and Thursday, after the class would end, we would go to the Blimpie in the student union to eat lunch and discuss what we thought was wrong with the class and what was right about the readings. Generally, these lunches were longer than the class itself had been, and no offense to the teacher, who was new, and eventually got the hang of things, but Bob understood the material better than she did. In the end, I learned more from those lunches with Bob than I did in the class itself.

I also learned a bit about what it means to have life not go the way you want it too, and still keep your sense of humor. Bob had been a pastor of a small church in the Ozark area. It didn’t work out. Bob had been married before. It didn’t work out either. In a way, it seemed that Bob was starting his life at the beginning of middle age, but in reality he had lived as much life as many people do in their whole lives. But it didn’t seem to have hurt him.

I write a lot on here about how life seems to hurt us. I have this feeling that there is a certain agony to life that can’t be avoided, that the African American litany, “my soul has grown deep,” can’t help but be true for all of us who see life as the damaging, painful experience that it really is. For me, that deepening has been a progressive shrinking into myself, becoming more solitary, relying more on my intellect and my family. Many people just pretend it isn’t happening.

Bob didn’t seem to do either. He acknowledged everything that life had done to him, all the scars that it had left, but what he took from it was a studious quasi-seriousness that valued the ethos of hard work while never really seeming to take anything seriously. That ability to simultaneously take things seriously and recognize that it is all just one big cosmic joke is something that I’ve been trying to get my mind around ever since.

My first year was Bob’s second, and he graduated and moved on to Texas Tech, where he is currently working on a Ph.D. in technical writing. We still keep in touch, and I figure he’ll read this at some point. Next time I’m in that part of Texas, Bob and I are going to get together, and I suspect we’ll smoke our pipes and reminisce. He’ll tell me about his studies. I’ll tell him about the Army. And then he’ll explain some piece of philosophic or theological literature that I’ve never heard of, and I’ll walk away with my head spinning, glad to have known, if only for a while, someone whose ability to understand complex ideas so far outstrips my own.


September 9, 2009 - Posted by | Fiction, Graduate School, Writing


  1. David, thanks for writing this. You summed up exactly why we all loved Bob that year, and, at least for me, why I continue to miss him.

    Comment by Sarah Jo | September 9, 2009 | Reply

    • Sarah, I was just banging around on your site, trying to find a way to subscribe to it in my email, like I did with Linden’s. Is that possible or am I looking for a feature that you don’t have installed?
      Thanks for the kind words. Bob was and is awesome.

      Comment by davidjgross | September 9, 2009 | Reply

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