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My Father’s School—for Me


For a long time after my father died two and a half years ago, I would occasionally have dreams in which he was present in the world of the dream but not present in my direct experience in the dream. He was there, but not right there. I imagine this is a not-uncommon experience.

More recently, however, he has made appearances, although there hasn’t been much communication that I recall between dream-Pop and dream-me. But one of these dreams awakened me to something I’ve been thinking about, which is, Things my father made sure I knew when I was a kid.

For example, my father wasn’t always entirely impressed by my teachers, and on occasion he would do the intellectual equivalent of strapping explosives to me before sending me off for some interaction with one of them. Once it was to teach me the term “aeger,” which in British university usage is a medical excuse from something. (How did he know this? Beats me. It’s the kind of thing he liked knowing.) I handed some poor teacher a note requesting an aeger from athletics, prompting a request for an explanation. When I gave the explanation, the teacher was certain I was being disrespectful and flippant, which perhaps to an extent I was, and before the episode had ended I was required to write a note of apology to the teacher.

Similarly I was required to write notes of apology over points of literary interpretation—once because I had requested adjudication by Bartlett’s over the exact wording of a quotation and once because I had suggested that “realms of gold” extended not just to the content of books but to the gold lettering on the cover of Chapman’s Homer; the copy at my grandmother’s house had gold lettering and gold leaf on the page edges. In each case my father had somehow spurred my thinking, whether or not it was intended to annoy my revered but touchy English teacher . But I have my suspicions.

My father made sure to fill my head with arcane vocabulary, odd facts, and occasional blatant untruths. (When finally I could not avoid eating fish, I was pleased to discover that the family medical condition that meant “if Gows eat fish, they will die” apparently hadn’t infected me. It apparently hadn’t occurred to me that tunafish sandwiches are actually made from, er, a kind of fish.) This out-of-the-way knowledge has given me considerable private amusement over the years, and I’ve tried to pass some of it along to my own children and to my students; many of them can still tell you that “Hope, Arkansas, is the Watermelon Capital of the World,” a factoid I learned from my father before anyone outside of Hope had ever heard of Bill Clinton.

We also spent quite a lot of time as a family looking at art, either at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo with its stunning and often puzzling collection of Modern work, or at the local “art dealer,” who made most of his money selling frames but occasionally moved a modest Picasso print or a small work by a contemporary painter. There were also white-covered Skira art books around the house to supplement what we could see in person.

There were things that my father couldn’t or didn’t want to teach me but made sure that someone else did. For example, Curt Fraser, the school maintenance man—the one and only at the time, for a seventy-acre campus with a dozen buildings—taught me how to drive a tractor when I was eleven, for example, and I still drive a stick-shift car. Alas, there has been no Curt to teach my children, who are automatic-only as their own father lacks the patience to teach them. Incidentally that tractor, still in use at the school, actually figured in my most recent dream involving my father, the dream that inspired this post.

Over the last few days my Facebook feed has been filling up with photos and “love-yous” of fathers of my extended family and former students, but I’m not sure a picture does justice to the ways in which my father influenced me. If I could turn myself upside down and drain out the odds and ends with which my father filled my head, I’m not sure how much of just plain me there would be left. He and I didn’t see eye to eye on many things, but I think we agreed on the joys of words and knowledge and literature and even teaching. (His past students, I have found, have their own store of D. Gow factoids.)

Love and support are wonderful things, and I guess in the end the ways these tended to manifest themselves in my relationship with father, the compulsive teacher, is in what he taught me—the factoids and the attitudes and the ability to enjoy a painting. I am also aware in my soul that from him I learned to see and accept students as both who they are and who they might be and to be patient with each kid’s process of becoming. He didn’t like my politics much, but I am pretty sure he approved deep down of my vocation.