I sat in my very first class at Lang on a sunny day in August 2011, a bright-eyed freshman with sweat on my forehead, dressed to the nines for an 11 am class as the rest of the students shuffled in with a lackluster look in their eyes.
Some were holding coffee, others leaving the scent of cigarette smoke behind them. I began to notice that the other students looked older than me and a few knew each other, speaking about professors I had never heard of. I slowly began to realize I was the only freshman in the class and I was nervous as hell, afraid that they’d figure me out.
Minutes passed as the rest of the students took their seats around the white table, no one paying any mind to me as I kept my gaze on my notebook. The door flew open and in walked an older man, tan skin, disheveled hair, a water bottle nestled in his arms. He was wearing a light blue dress shirt, and sweat came through in patches. He was a presence you couldn’t ignore, his eyes meeting the faces of every student as he placed himself at the front of the table. Most he already knew. Then there was me.
“My name is Robin Mookerjee and this is Lit Foundations 1.” He slammed the book of Genesis and a stack of syllabi on the table. His face was deadpan but his eyes, slit, showed glints of amusement.
He slowly went through roll call, and then he said my name. I raised my hand slowly, nervous.
“Ah! Here we have the only Freshman in the class.” He gestured to me, his face completely blank. I looked at him in horror, panic stricken that he had just blown my cover. A small grin played at the corner of his mouth.
He looked at me, nodded, and said in a monotonous tone, “Welcome to Hell.”
The class erupted with laughter. My nerves melted away.
His jokes passed quickly, they were so quick in fact that you had to pay close attention to catch them. Fifteen minutes later, he compared Moses to Freddy Krueger. By the end of the class, I knew he was my favorite professor even though I hadn’t met any others yet.
And I was right.
I took a class with Robin every semester of my college career except one. His approach to teaching fascinated me, the way he could twist anything into sarcasm while showcasing the seriousness of every subject. He could shape-shift mundane texts into literary masterpieces, as if his words were magic.
I thought he was brilliant, that everything he did was brilliant. He was a talented professor and a talented writer. Some didn’t like him but those that did adored him. Usually, every class Robin held was filled with people he had taught before, waiting for him to pass along his wisdom and wit to them.
I joked that he could have a class titled “Robin Mookerjee Drinks Water” and I would take it. I came to think of him quickly as a literary genius, a kind hearted soul, and later, a mentor.
Robin inspired me to be more, to do more, to write like it was the end of the world.
My second semester of Sophomore year, though, I was facing the hardest obstacle of my adult life. I was taking Robin’s “Intro to Poetry” class, but for the first time, I couldn’t bring myself to pay attention. My personal life was in shambles and I spent most of my time at school crying in the bathroom. I couldn’t write anymore and most of the poems I turned in were messy, incoherent. I missed several of his classes as well as other classes with other professors because I just couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed in the morning. Slowly, I was slipping into a kind of madness. A grey cloud hung over me and it rained down every chance it got.
Most of my professors barely noticed the change in me, but Robin did. I hadn’t turned in two assignments in a row and had missed three classes without a note, a case many professors would see as a means for failure.
Instead, I woke up to an email from Robin, telling me that I could be kicked out of class and given an incomplete if I didn’t come in the next day. He told me to come to his office to talk and the end of his email read, “This isn’t like you.”
I was filled with dread at that moment because I knew I had disappointed the professor whom I looked up to so much. I could wreck everything in my personal life as much as I wanted, but disappointing Robin felt like a stab in the gut.
The next day, I went to his office, trying to think of some explanation other than the real one. I hadn’t told many people about what was happening to me, save for a few friends and my family. I made up sicknesses in my mind, faking deaths of relatives that didn’t exist.
However, when I went into his office and sat down in a chair, Robin looked at me and said, “Tess, what is going on?”
And I lost it. I burst into a flood of tears and told him everything. Every detail as he sat there, his face deadpan as usual, nodding.
Then, he said the words that have never left me, even in the dark times that were to come, the times when I was in danger of losing myself completely again.
He said: “Tess, you are a good writer and you have to take this pain and turn it into art. You can’t let pain destroy you. Just turn it into art.”
He handed me a tissue and told me to write 5 extra poems about the things that were hurting me to make up for my absences.
He asked me how many other classes I had missed, I told him all of them. The next day, Robin informed the rest of my professors that I had been very sick and to excuse me from my absences. He saved me from failing every class and he saved me from falling into a very dark pit that I wouldn’t have been able to crawl out of. I ended that semester with A’s and B’s, something I am not sure I would have accomplished without him.
Robin Mookerjee had a way of turning literature into something cosmic, something that transcended the page. He took even the most mundane texts and made them interesting. He taught classes that were out of the ordinary, classes filled with books that I would have never picked out on my own but soon grew to love and understand. When you took a class with Robin, you didn’t just learn to appreciate a book, you felt as if you had become an expert on it. It’s because of him that I can debate at length about Nabokov’s Lolita or why I can talk about the hidden meanings in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Robin had a way of stripping the written word down to its core, building them back up again with new ideas, new meanings. I’ve learned most of what I know about books and about writing from Robin. He was, to me and to many, a literary genius.
When Robin passed away, I was on my lunch break at work. I got a text from my friend, who asked me if this was the Robin I had raved about for four years. My stomach dropped and I gasped, frozen in time, questioning if what I just read was simply a figment of my imagination, a delusion created for me like the characters in the books Robin had taught me to love so much.
He and I had exchanged emails a month or two before. The thesis that he had helped me edit was being published and we were trying to arrange a time to get coffee and celebrate and talk about what would happen next. Our schedules never aligned. I didn’t make time. That’s something I think I will regret forever.
I went to Robin’s memorial the next day, and a small room in the Lang building was filled with students and professors who loved him as dearly as I did. We sat around in a circle and spoke about Robin’s wit, his charm, his genius and we cried because we all felt a piece of ourselves had died with him.
Two weeks later, someone else close to me passed away, and I felt like the pain of it all would never subside. However, Robin taught me that pain is the fundamental motivation for art.
Grief is an odd thing, it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. It’s a pain that can’t be erased by time, only faded. However, when grief sinks it’s teeth into my heart, I say to myself, “Take this pain and turn it into art.”
I know that that’s what Robin would have told me, most likely followed by a witty phrase, delivered, of course, in perfect deadpan.