“Dead Poets Society,” starring the late Robin Williams is one of my favorite films, reminiscent of my undergraduate Shakespeare class, taught by the late Darryl J. Gless at UNC-Chapel Hill.
News of Gless’ recent passing saddened me, one of the best professors one could and should have. Reading tributes, I also feel honored, having had him as a professor, mentor and friend.
I honored Gless, making department gifts in his name, much to his delight, appreciative of his contributions.
Immediately, he senses my insecurities, my past struggles still undermining my potential, in Greenlaw Hall, the first day of class.
The effects of a troubled home, a rocky high school start, disciplinary infractions, living with three families, two high schools, abuse, and few, if any, family supports trouble me. Times when dropping out of high school and becoming a statistic made more sense than defying the odds.
UNC is a large and comprehensive research institution, intimidating at times.
Prompting me to join peers, seated closer to the podium, I do so, somehow trusting without believing, hoping for the future and worrying about the past.
“Your name?” he asks.
“Please don’t isolate yourself. Inclusion and participation equate with success in this class, and are a percentage of your grade”
An English major and its only black, UNC isn’t as large and intimidating, peers also exhibiting signals of inclusion.
Small in stature, Gless explains that we’ll study 15 to 18 representative comedies, histories, and tragedies. Identifying those previously taught by Diane Beam, at Gastonia’s Ashbrook High, my confidence soars. “She taught critical and analytical thinking skills, referring me to the school and county library for additional instruction, reading Shakespeare commentaries and discourse.” I win applause, my excitement almost too great to contain. Now Gless is a giant. Class ends all too soon.
Summoned to the podium, Gless shakes my hand, telling me that I’m going to do well, extending an invitation to meet and to discuss strategies for success, declaring English my major.
Quickly winning my confidence, sharing aspects of his humble Nebraska origins and insecurities, attending the University of Nebraska, Princeton, Oxford, and Princeton, conversation facilitates an interpersonal connection and friendship, lasting decades, viewing prior adversity as incentives to succeed, now more than ever.
“You’ve got a brilliant mind, Patrick. Use it for your and others’ benefit.”
Leaving his office, the UNC bell tower chimes, and I head to the Josephus B. Daniels bookstore to purchase the required texts. In Davis Library, I begin reading “Othello.” Perhaps among one of the most significant of my undergraduate experiences, the play permits me and others to discuss racial implications and sexual jealousy, based upon prior perceptions, objectively and unconditionally, much to Gless’ delight.
“I don’t think Shakespeare is as concerned about race in the general context, as many believe; instead, it’s more appropriate that we address it now, a matter of interpretation,” I said in class. Decades later the applause, not to mention Gless’ remains etched in my memory.
Papers are an opportunity to individually analyze literary works, incorporating such introspection into arguments, Gless reviewing each, challenging me to elaborate more extensively, assuring me that I can do so without penalty, and indicating that my critical and analytical thinking skills are rapidly becoming more evident, focused, and substantiated, his handwriting like that of a doctor’s, read with care.
Gless’ command of the discipline and appreciation for additional perspectives make me glad that I’m at UNC, majoring in English literature, a precocious child and reader, devouring texts faster than a “speeding bullet.” The semester ends far too soon, exchanging perspectives with peers and acquiring new perspectives, prior ones redefined and shaped by newfound knowledge.
Graduation doesn’t part us. A friendship emerges, Gless and me meeting for lunch and dinner in Chapel Hill. My accomplishments don’t surprise him, naval public relations, graduate school, professional and technical writing, public speaking, college writing instruction.” “You’ve got a brilliant mind, Patrick. Continue using it for your and others’ benefit.”
Every college student’s college experience include mentors like Gless, challenging them to think beyond perceived limitations and to realize their individual potential, no matter how challenging it may be. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: “Nothing is good. Nothing is bad. Only thinking makes it so.”
Patrick Burris, UNC Class of 1988, is a technical writer, living in Charlotte.