A Death Online: In Memory of Frank

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RussellBy Rich Russell

I was setting up small group workshops in my online Creative Writing I class last week. Blackboard makes it so easy to do this: In the “Teach” tab, go to “Create Groups” and then “Create Multiple Groups” and “Randomly Distribute Students” into however many groups one wants. I chose “4 groups” for my 20 students; 21 students counting a “Demo Student,” who is the professor in disguise, you see. That’s the easy part. The harder part, the part I wasn’t expecting, came next. Because as I was looking over who had landed in each group, deciding whether I needed to reshuffle them all or not, I saw Frank’s name listed among the members of one of the groups.

And Frank had been dead for two months.

I think it was at the end of maybe the second week that I received a message in Blackboard from him. But it was not from him: he had already been dead for days. The message began, “Professor Russell, this is Frank’s girlfriend. Frank died.” I clicked the “Who’s Online” tab and saw that, at this early hour on a Saturday in January (it might have even been snowing), Frank was the only one online other than me. (Except, of course, it wasn’t.) No one prepares you for this. I remember the first year I was teaching at a high school up in North Jersey (Bergen County), a student had been killed in a motorcycle accident. My friend Amy, who had been his teacher, was frantic those first few days; the school went into “grief mode.” We hugged each other and cried and had a special meeting for faculty and then a meeting with grief counselors for faculty and students and then a memorial service for the student himself. And then somehow we went on.

Here, I had received no notice from the college about Frank. How does one proceed? I e-mailed all of the students in the class to inform them; I can’t remember if I included a link to the obituary notice or not; I think not. I told them I would be available if they needed me and also linked to the college’s counselors. But that was it: I was left, for the most part, alone. (One cannot hug a computer, after all. One cannot see from the students’ faces how they are handling the news.)

Not two weeks before this, driving to Harrisburg, PA, for a meeting in early January, I had listened to a story on NPR’s Fresh Air about managing your digital assets after death: who will manage your online presence in your untimely absence. I suppose that this job had fallen to Frank’s girlfriend: she had been tasked with logging on to Blackboard as Frank (I didn’t think too long about how she had had his password) to contact his online professors.

Frank’s girlfriend had been a student in my class last year, and I still had her own e-mail, so rather than write back to her as Frank, I closed out of Blackboard and sent my condolences to her address — and told her that I was available if she needed to talk to me. She wrote back, just to let me know essentially that she was gracefully surviving, which is a Tennessee Williams phrase.

For the next few days, I thought about Frank a lot, which was difficult because I had only a name for him: I didn’t even know what he had looked like. We had never met. I read over, several times, the introduction that he had posted on Blackboard during the first week, as if reading and re-reading it would somehow bring him back, if even for a moment, so that I could see him just once. From his introduction I knew that Frank was a lab aid on campus. That he was transferring after this semester to finish his B.A. That he loved to write.

His girlfriend had said to me, in her e-mail, “I recommended you to Frank. He was looking forward to a career in writing. I knew you could help him with that.”

When it came time for mid-semester reports, I received one for Frank; I wrote back that Frank had died. (Didn’t anyone know that?)

And even now, it’s like I am still seeing him in this online class: not him, of course, but his name, but his name is all I ever really knew, other than that he worked in the science labs and wanted to be a writer.

A month ago I saw Frank’s girlfriend in real life, working at a store in the mall. I gave her a hug and asked how she was. She said she was surviving. That’s all any of us can do, we who are human. We go on, gracefully surviving, in this real life, which, unlike our online presence, is precious and finite.

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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