By Christopher Siders ’99
It’s always been ironic that whenever someone asks me about Chris Roark, Ph.D. – the brilliant, layered Shakespearian scholar – there are only two simple things that come to mind to describe him.
My college roommate called me one summer day last year and told me “Roark” (as we called him) passed away. He was our advisor; our teacher for many classes; and in the 10 years or so since graduation, our friend. In the simple, pragmatic way men talk, Jesse laid out the basics for me. Heart problems, he said. Ironic because of how much Roark loved words, music, and communication with everyone. His love of anything Shakespeare was obvious in his courses, as well as his love of music, specifically Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and his love of his family. However, his love, while important, isn’t one of the two simple things.His laugh.
Dr. Roark’s classes were, at times, painfully difficult. Legendary for his “packets” of no less than 50 pages of information about whatever course you were taking with him, he laughed in such a way that made you feel less tense. This was a nicer way to take that “packet” when he dropped it, smiling, on your desk. His laugh was distinct. It made you laugh in return.
In one of my first classes with Roark, my class was confronted with his final exam. I slaved and memorized and most likely cried in the bathtub (I can’t remember, but it’s possible) and looked with fear as the exam was dropped on my desk. The class was silent. I was young. Maybe looking for attention. Maybe I couldn’t handle my emotions without making some lame joke to loosen up. Maybe I was just a typical college sophomore. With the class completely quiet, I let out – what I feel – was a perfect rendition of his laugh. As it left my throat and glided out of my mouth, I thought: “What an amazingly stupid thing I’ve just done.” Of course, it got the requisite laughter from my classmates. Making fun of your professor during the final, and in front of him, isn’t the best way to pass a class.
Much to my relief, Dr. Roark was laughing harder than anyone. His face red and his body shaking, he was a teacher not afraid to laugh along with you. This made you work harder for him. He never let you feel completely comfortable in class (there was Shakespeare to analyze) but not afraid to let you bring humor to his class. His classes were fun. He could make Shakespeare fun. The gorilla mask was fun. His obsession with the word “dauphin” was fun. A class that’s fun shows me the educator cares about the subject. That makes me want to produce. It’s that simple.
I dug through a room in the basement of my mom’s house and found a box, which contained papers and tests I kept from his class. I did this for most of my classes, but my essays that were graded by him were different from the others. They had more than just a grade. They had comments; and not just basic comments. As I read the essays and his analysis, I could actually see him reading along with what I wrote:
“Yes!!!” in traditional red ink (my goal was three exclamation points).
“Where are you going with this thought?”
“Have you considered …”
I could picture him shaking his head in agreement (you wanted that) or scowling (you didn’t) and maniacally grading essays. My analysis and thoughts were considered and sparked his curiosity. You could pose anything and as long as you had evidence to back it up, he would consider it. Let the verbal jousting begin! Question everything. Think outside the box. You learn more when you fail. Back it up! That’s weak! Roark was motion personified. Everything must be questioned! Constantly questioning things is just as important as finding the answer. This made him my most difficult and best instructor.
The night he died, I attended my class reunion at John Carroll (irony again because I hadn’t returned in 10 years). I hadn’t found out about him yet and wouldn’t until the next morning. I walked past the O’Malley Center, the English department perched on the top floor, and thought of Dr. Roark. I remembered a story by James Baldwin we studied in his African-American literature class. In “Sonny’s Blues,” Sonny’s brother sits back and watches the barmaid bring a glass of Scotch and milk to the piano where Sonny is playing. She puts the glass down, and it “glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.”
This line is what I think of every time I remember Dr. Roark or his classes. I often wonder why it is that line from that story. Is it a theme of reflection? Redemption? Why is this connecting to Roark? If I analyze the “why” enough, maybe I’ll figure it out. If I do that, maybe I won’t think about his classes as much. I hope I never find the answer. JCU
Siders is an English as a Second Language instructor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.