December 1, 2012

Dr. Reist comments, cont.

We received three more comments from Dr. Reist's former students, memories about the man and his impact on them.

I tried my hardest to take one of Dr. Reist's classes every semester. I damn near succeeded, too. Here's a list of the courses I took from him over the years:

-Theodore Dreiser and the American Dream
-Jewish-American Literature (the semester after that course he was taking roll and when he got to me, said, "Hittinger. You were in that Holocaust thing with me, right?")
-"Everyman" honors seminar
-English 370 (modern American Literature)

I'll be honest: I didn't always know what I was learning when I signed up for Reist classes. Mostly, I just thought it would be an easy grade with a funny guy I liked to talk to.

For example, it was something of an open secret among English majors that you could extend your normal paper length by substituting the standard Times New Roman/12-point font paper for Courier New/14-point font. Dr. Reist didn't care. Or at least, he never made any intentions that he cared. I got A's on all my papers so (I assume) he didn't dock me for not following MLA style. (I also always addressed him as "The Rev. Dr. John Seth Reist, Jr." on the papers' headers, and he always gave me a check mark for it. Not sure if it was actually him giving me points, but I like to think so.)

His tests were long but usually contained questions such as "Write your own question," or "Write a story involving three of the characters from the works we read and how they relate back to the overall theme of 'The American Dream.'" My stories, as did those of many others, invariably involved the Rest Twins showing up by the end of the blue book pages.

It wasn't until later in my college career that I appreciated just what Dr. Resit was teaching us. About literature, yes, but also about life, faith and America. That sounds really corny, but it's true: I perhaps learned more about these three things from him than I did from any Hillsdale professor.

They're all connected, and Reist was living proof: This neat, funny little guy who never said something he didn't mean and stood up for his convictions in the face of adversity. What's more American than that?

(PS, This has nothing to do with any of that, but the very best e-mail I ever received was from Dr. Reist.

Once before class I sent him this long email asking a couple of questions that probabaly merited a face-to-face with him instead of an e-mail. But I was lazy and didn't think of that, so instead i sent him an email.

A few hours later, just before class was set to begin, I received a response. Two letters, no punctuation or anything:


That was it. I really wish I could find the email but it's disappeared into the internet somewhere.) 

(NOTE: These comments were written before Dr. Reist passed away, and were intended to be read in his presence. Nick wanted the message to appear in it's original form, though, saying that, "If it was good enough before, I think it's good enough still.)

During the week I graduated, about four of my buddies and I went to Chicago Water Grill with Dr. Reist. John Krudy was there, and Dennis Walton, Sam Heisman, and Emrys Van Maren. I had dinner with Dr. Reist many times during college and this was one of the last. I'm sure he had a martini or two and later probably a glass of Merlot. When we were all feeling very comfortable he started in earnest telling jokes.

Dr. Reist had a reputation for telling off-color jokes, but mostly the ones he told in classes and around campus were like that “Honor, offer” one. But oh my god, at the restaurant that night, I remember feeling a bit uneasy when I noticed families sitting nearby. He may have told truly the dirtiest jokes I have ever heard. And some of them were hardly even jokes—they were just crude descriptions of sex!

He had us laughing so hard our ribs hurt and we were almost in tears.

But I did spend a lot of time in his classes, and had he only made me laugh, that wouldn't have been enough. I want to try and get at another reason I kept returning.

One of the classes I did was Kurt Vonnegut. In a way Vonnegut's easy to parse without a professor's help. But he's deceptively easy, and in this way he resembles Reist.

My favorite Vonnegut novel is Cat's Cradle. It's very funny. It has an apocalypse where the world gets covered in this poisonous blue-white frost, and the narrator realizes the survivors will soon die of thirst, hunger, rage, or apathy. But after the disaster, in a cave, he has a “sordid sex episode” with another survivor, a woman he's been eying all through the novel.

She resists. Afterward she says, “It would be very sad to have a little baby now, don't you agree?” He says yes. “Well,” she says, “that's the way little babies are made, in case you didn't know.”

Maybe it sounds funny, but I think it's terminally serious. She's just cast his action in a new light of cruelty. Sex could mean subjecting a new person to a life of suffering, and the philosophical implications are more than a little significant. Of course the story moves swiftly along. The sorrow is momentary and it's so it's easy to miss. You can hear Dr. Reist saying, “Hey, it's how I met my wife.”

I wonder how many times this happened in Dr. Reist's classes and I didn't notice. I think about his stories of escapades in the Army. He spent two years in France, never went into combat, and he often said they were the best years of his life. But he sometimes made passing remarks about how difficult they were, and it confused me, and I asked him once when we were talking in the library, passing an afternoon. His mood was serious. He said, “Nick, they were the worst years of my life. They were miserable.” I don't think he said any more, and I didn't prod. It's not hard to imagine him feeling out of place in the military.

I think his graveness was always there, just elusive. He consistently taught such heavy, sorrowful literature. While I was here he did Theodore Dreiser, A.E. Housman, Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway. He'd draw our attention to a Housman poem about soldiers, or to Jake and Bill's travails in Paris in The Sun Also Rises, or Robert Jordan's fate. Any of which might remind him of his own time as a soldier. He'd sing this jingle I think he learned in the Army: “Drink a highball at night fall, / Be good fellows while we may. For tomorrow may bring sorrow, / So let's drink up today.” He'd grin and bounce in his seat and have us laughing again. One time he said, “Hey, if we don't laugh about these things, we'll cry.”

I know of some writers whose work reflects this duality, but I've never met anyone who embodies it like Dr. Reist. It's a credit to his wisdom and his empathy, and his resiliency, but also how purely funny he is. Thank you, Dr. Reist.

As a senior year at Hillsdale, I took a seminar-style class with Dr. Reist that covered the works of John Updike.
We read the "Rabbit" series, some of Updike's poetry, another novel, and several short stories.
As I'm sure most people reading this know, Updike often wrote about sex. The Rabbit quartet, especially, is full of it. All kinds of it. In extreme detail.
The subject matter of the class prompted some interesting discussions, but one anecdote sticks out above all others in mind - probably because my face was bright red by the end of the incident.
Dr. Reist started off this particular class with a simple question: "What is 'la petite mort?'" he asked. "Who here speaks French?"
I knew the answer to that question - I was a French minor - but was nervous about raising my hand. Would knowing the answer to this make me look bad? I wondered.
However, no one else volunteered, so I gingerly responded: "the little death..." hoping the conversation would end.
"Yes...but what does it really mean?" Reist probed.
" orgasm," I said, face hidden.
Reist told me I was correct and then proceeded to make noises and wave his arms about, demonstrating the power of such a moment. 
"Ooo! Ahh! Yes! Yes!  *grunt* *grunt* Yes!"
His impression went on for far longer than any real "petite death" could possibly last and we all looked at each other, wondering when the awkwardness would end, while still howling with laughter.
It was an embarrassing moment, but it was absolutely hilarious, and I will never forget it. It was also probably the most awkward I felt during a class at Hillsdale, right up there with the "thigh-warmed chocolate" class with Dr. Somerville. But we'll save that for another day.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home