Monday, January 18, 2016

Alumnus Pays Tribute to Dr. Gary Levine

By Spencer Dolezal, class of 2014

I met Dr. Gary Levine during my junior year at Ashland University. He was teaching a course on English Grammar and Usage, and he had a reputation of being a tough professor. Shuddering at his syllabus, I was intimidated by him on our first day of class. It wasn’t a long process for me to understand and respect his teaching style. He commanded the classroom in a unique and, more importantly, genuine way. He was among the first people in the classroom to admit that certain grammar rules were confusing, that certain sentences were tough to break down, that he could easily make a grammar error if he wasn’t careful. In a later composition course, he would wade with us through essays that we sometimes struggled to understand. He wouldn’t leave us behind, but he wouldn’t simply give us the answers without making us think. He knew we had the tools to figure it out, and he helped us along the way. He built trust with his students not by having all the answers, but more simply by making it known that he did not. He was not perfect, and he was the first to admit it. I rarely left one of his classes without feeling altogether more empowered, more humbled, and with a stronger desire to work harder at being a better student, a better reader, and a better writer.

I believe that some of the brilliance of Dr. Levine’s teaching was lost to many of his students, but I think I understood a lot of it, and it helped me to respect him deeply. He gave us feedback for the first drafts of our first papers in that composition class, and at first it felt brutal. Someone asked what he thought the grades were like for the drafts.

“There isn’t a grade higher than a C in this bunch,” he said with a slight smirk on his face. He knew what reaction was coming. A mixture of despair, disappointment, fury, and pain wrote its way across many of our faces. He let out a short laugh and said, “Guys, a C is good.” He left it at that.

I worked hard in his classes for two reasons. I love English, and Dr. Levine would not put up with anything less than my best. The frustrating part here, and probably the part that can be so easily misunderstood, is that my best, our best, was sometimes only “good” for him. I learned to value the distinction between what is passable work, what is good work, and what is my best work. It has been transformational for me. To be humbled as a writer in this way leaves me an immense amount of space for growth. That space is what drives me. That space is what has kept me writing since graduation and what will keep me writing. Few people have ownership over building that space, but Gary Levine is without a shadow of a doubt one of them. That is a gift that is worth more than almost anything to me. To look back at my time with Dr. Levine drives me to write and read and pass on my love of both of those to everyone I know. I have him, among a few select others, to thank for that desire. Without his leadership, without his honesty, without his criticism, and without his meaningful exhortation and encouragement, I certainly would be a different person. I struggle to believe that that version of me would be better than I am now.

Now that he has passed away, I have spent some time thinking about my interactions with Dr. Levine. I have thought about the humor he injected into his lessons, how quick witted he was. I have thought about the wisdom and knowledge he passed on to me in the classroom and out of the classroom. I have thought about his sobering encouragement to “find the classroom that is best suited for my teaching abilities,” to keep reading, to keep writing. I have thought about his words of exhortation written to me in a final email in my last semester as his student, about the articles he sent to me about my favorite authors after I had graduated, about the slightly awkward yet always enjoyable conversations we had passing each other across campus.

Of all the memories I’ve had swirling in my brain since his passing, one has continued to come to the forefront of my mind this whole time. It is from the classroom. We were discussing the effect that people have on the world around them. Dr. Levine brought up the film It’s a Wonderful Life. As he explained the plot, how George Bailey’s wish to have never been born opens his eyes to how much positive change he has brought to the world, Dr. Levine’s eyes began to water. He told us he had to stop thinking about it or he would break down in front of us. His near-loss of composure in this moment exposed his ingenuousness in a new way. He was no longer just a tough professor. In that moment he admitted his desire to do more in the lives around him than to simply teach, and that is what he did.

This memory that keeps coming back to me is so important because it is as if it plays out the fantasy of George Bailey’s life right before my eyes. I was able to get in touch with Dr. Levine before he passed, and I told him most of these things. I was able to let him know that my life was changed for having known him. I count myself lucky enough to have received a simple response from him because it gave me the peace of knowing that he heard my sincere appreciation. The beauty of Dr. Levine’s passing, the tiny silver lining, is that he was flooded with messages like mine from his students and colleagues sending him prayers and well wishes, telling him they believed in him, telling him they were changed because of him. He was able to experience the result of his efforts, to see how he changed the world around him.

To put it simply, I am a better person for having known Gary Levine. The most wonderful part is that I am not the only one.