“Sheridan’s gifts as a teacher were as rare as the purity of his passion. Wherein did these gifts lie? In his brilliance? Yes. In his mastery of his subject? Of course. In his capacity for lucid, concrete, and vivid explanation? Again, yes. But there is another factor, one whose roots lie in magic or the supernatural. Sheridan had charm.” –Jonathan Malino, Eulogy for Sheridan Simon, 11 April 1994
This week marks the 23rd anniversary of a death, a death far too young and far too fast and far too unfair. To keep him alive, I want you to meet a most special human being, an extraordinary mind, a brilliant writer, one of the very funniest people I’ve ever met, and a most amazing teacher. A man with definite charm.
His name is Sheridan Simon. He often had a surprised look on his face because he was always fascinated. This is unabashedly a tribute to him, but I think you’ll find some wisdom in his story, too.
Sheridan was only 46 when he died, a lifetime of living left undone, unsaid, untaught, unbreathed, just fiercely unlived. He was an astrophysicist, my extraordinary professor at Guilford College, and later – I’m privileged to say – my friend.
Sheridan showed by example the very best in balancing fun and work, friendship and respect, flexibility and standards. I spent many outrageous evenings eating pizza at Huck’s across from campus with Sheridan and my classmates, knowing full well that when our lab reports were due the next day, they were due at the beginning of class and not a minute later, regardless of our dinnertime camaraderie. The door to the physics department was locked the moment lab began, and those hapless souls who were late would desperately try to shove their reports under the door, to no avail (and to the almost immeasurable and admittedly depraved delight of those of us already in the room). There was no negotiation—you received an “F” for that lab if not there on time.
I stayed up all night to write my first physics lab report, paralyzed by the prospect of living up to his standards, and finally crafting a play in three acts to demonstrate the findings of my computer-simulated rocket launch. The main characters were a religion major who had just read Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” and an English major who thought she had written Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” It appealed to Sheridan’s sense of fun and encyclopedic knowledge of the liberal arts, as evidenced by his detailed remarks in the margins, replete with quotes from movies like “On the Waterfront,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It was my first introduction to the full measure of his wickedly irreverent sense of humor, and a mutual admiration society was born.
Sheridan was immeasurably tough and demanding in the classroom, both on his students and on himself. But because of his liveliness, his ability to make the most obtuse of physics concepts knowable and manageable, his obvious devotion to us, the way he held himself as accountable as he held us, his brilliant sense of humor and fun—we didn’t curse him, we loved him and sought him out…and we were (though we didn’t know it at the time) lifted up to greater heights than we ever imagined possible—because he saw it was in us to get there. Where do you go when people believe in you? To the very pinnacle of your ability—and beyond.
Sheridan embodied constructive impatience – instilling in people around him healthy anxiety with a destination, pushing people in a constructive way to achieve more, to reach their highest heights while laughing great big belly laughs in the process.
One of Sheridan’s friends, and my philosophy professor, delivered a powerful eulogy for Sheridan after his death from—what else, cancer. An excerpt follows, since Jonathan Malino said it the best it could be said—I don’t think you have to have known Sheridan to appreciate this description of living a life with a point (or to wonder what form your own eulogy might take):
“In his living, and in his dying, Sheridan demonstrated how human life can have point. He did this, of course, in the obvious way, with those myriad achievements that fill the pages of a curriculum vitae: teaching awards, books and articles of science and science fiction, computer software and imaginary planets, and expertise in Anglo-Saxon history. But Sheridan’s life had point in a sense both deeper and rarer than this. It is the sense of the Psalmist who wrote: ‘So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom’ (Psalms 90:12). The heart of wisdom to which the Psalmist refers is not simply the external reward that comes from our paying enough attention to our days that we don’t waste them. Rather, it is something we can achieve only when counting our days provides us with an account of our life. We gain a heart of wisdom, the Psalmist tells us, when we can make sense of the days of our life, when our life has point to us.
Sheridan was five years old when he announced that he wanted to be an astrophysicist; six when he began reading science fiction. From those early moments, until his semi-lucid, dying struggles to solve a mathematical equation, he knew the point of his life. There were no psychological crises–no identity crises, no mid-life crisis, no disabling ambivalence and conflict. Sheridan knew who he was. His aspirations were clear and wholehearted. His goals always in sight. The hard work these goals entailed, cheerfully faced. He had found his niche in this universe of untold dimensions, and he delighted in it, confident of its value.
The ancient Rabbis ask, “Who is a rich person?” And they reply, “Whoever delights in his portion.” Sheridan learned the importance of finding a portion in which to delight…he possessed the riches contained in a heart of wisdom.
Sheridan’s portion was a life of teaching. His gifts as a teacher were as rare as the purity of his passion. Wherein did these gifts lie? In his brilliance? Yes. In his mastery of his subject? Of course. In his capacity for lucid, concrete, and vivid explanation? Again, yes. But there is another factor, one whose roots lie in magic or the supernatural. Sheridan had charm. In describing this charm, his sister Esther quoted a 19th-century Frenchman: charm is that quality in someone which makes us feel good or special about ourselves. Sheridan made his students feel good about themselves by radiating the unequivocal message that they truly mattered to him, that he respected them, cared for them, and had confidence in them; that they were as worthy as he was.
In his living, Sheridan demonstrated how life can have point. And in his dying, this demonstration grew only more compelling. A year ago, doctors at Duke told Sheridan that in all likelihood, he had only one year to live. “Do whatever you want in that year,” they urged him. And so he did. He continued to live the very life he had been leading before his illness. This was his life. His account of his days, his heart of wisdom, lay in the very passions and commitments which he embodied daily.
Day by day, this determination not to run away from his life took more and more courage. The pain increased. The exhaustion mounted. And yet, just three nights before his death, Sheridan was still in the classroom, still reaching out to others, still using every bit of his energy to make the lives of others better.
All of us have had to adjust our lives–our emotions and expectations and habits–to Sheridan’s absence.”
That adjustment continues, begrudgingly. How could he be gone for 23 years? I miss what our friendship could have become as we grew older and closer in age (odd how that happens). I miss his truly hysterical letters, a fat file of which I have kept all these years. I re-read them now, so conscious of their dates, recognizing that he wrote this one with just three years left, and this one with only two years to live, unbeknownst to any of us that he was speeding toward his end. His last letter, as funny as any other, was written to me just eight days before he died. A gift, to the end.
Sheridan’s dedication to, and his love of, teaching was clearly evident in his decision to remain in the classroom during his final months. He died 76 hours after his last class.
But I wanted to learn these lessons from someone else, not him. In one of my last letters to him, after visiting just a month before he died, I told him so: “To value life, the living of it, to hold on to dear things, human interactions that form your life, to let people know what they mean to you in real time, to have no patience for the bullshit. The lessons are invaluable; for the moment, I’d prefer another teacher, not you.”
“As I flew into Greensboro to see you,” I continued, “I flew into the sunset, above the clouds. And, like seeing the moon, I thought of you flying up there. It just struck me as such a strong vision, and me flying right along with you, talking to you, smiling as we flew along the tops of clouds, telling some crazy story or another and laughing. Perhaps I spent way too much time in Vacation Bible School as a youngster, but the vision really comforted me. It had nothing to do with heaven, but everything about not needing to be physically present to be constant.”
The last line of the last message I got from Sheridan, just eight days before he died: “Be in touch, OK? Love, Sheridan.”
~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~
A three-part challenge this week:
Make sense of the days of your life. Know who you are. Know the point of your life. Find a portion in which to delight. Ask yourself: “what is the account of my life?” Do that thing that makes you feel alive, that you’ve always wanted to do, that you must do.
Tell someone the story of a life that you cherish and want to keep alive. Then tell it again. And again. And again. Write it down. Embellish it. Make it come alive. Pass that person along to someone new; don’t let them die. Please pass along to someone else some tidbit about Sheridan; help me keep him alive.
Find your favorite teacher and tell them what they meant to you. Be in touch, OK?
(First published on April 8, 2005)