NONFICTION – Maxine’s Last Class by Adam Wolfsdorf

“There are no final words, but only questions.” – Maxine Greene, May 6, 2014

I am, admittedly, unqualified to write this.  I barely knew Maxine Greene.  For the most part, she was a name to me— as the semester unfolded, and I got to know her a little she became a face and a body, a woman in a wheelchair, bright pink lipstick, large, plastic rimmed glasses, a straw, an 8-ounce Poland Springs water bottle, and, perhaps most significantly and convincingly, she became what everybody said she used to be.

By the time my life’s path crossed with Maxine’s, she was merely a nonagenarian coping with mundane challenges— putting on clothes in the morning, bathing, applying makeup and consuming food.  She was almost 60 years my senior— a child of the First World War.  The world of today must have seemed almost science fiction to the Brooklyn girl who was born on my mother-in-law’s birthday, two days before Christmas.  I would learn all of this later, not because I was supposed to know it, but because I miraculously happened to be in the right place at the right time.  I happened to be one of the lucky twenty who had had the privilege of taking Maxine’s last class.  At the beginning of the Spring Semester, my advisor, Sheridan Blau, had urged me to take the course: “This may be the last time she ever teaches,” Sheridan had said.  “She’s 96, if I’m not mistaken.  You never know whether this’ll be the end”.  I had listened to Dr. Blau and registered in the middle of January with the permission of Daiyu Suzuki, Maxine’s instructional assistant and the man who would in fact do almost all of the teaching for the semester.

Maxine was not well.  She had not yet contracted the pneumonia that would bring about her end, but the signs of infirmity and visible fragility had been working on Maxine for years.  Ninety-six is far longer than I imagine I will live.  I’m not even convinced that I’d want to keep going that long if I had the choice.  But Maxine was a fighter.  I didn’t know much about her, but I knew that.  She’d keep at it to the bitter end.  Maxine died on May 29th.  She taught us on May 6th.

Throughout the course of the semester, Maxine spoke to us perhaps 5-10 minutes each class period.  The rest of the 90 minute class period tended to be either student run or directed by Daiyu.  When Maxine did speak, usually prompted by Daiyu or by a student’s direct question, she’d often shake her head a little while prepping her speech.  Sometimes she needed to take a sip of water because her mouth was dry, and she often prefaced her statements by remarking on “how horrible” her voice must sound.  None of us noticed or agreed.  In a way, it was simply a pleasure to hear Maxine speak.  She’d often pull up her arthritic fingers and tilt her chin up towards the sky.  Her eyes would narrow, and she’d begin talking in an accent that pleasantly combined humor, Brooklyn, rootedness, and remnants of her sparkling sagacity.

Maxine was a rebel— she believed that the role of the educator was to “wake people up”.  At the beginning of the semester when we read and discussed Albert Camus’ The Plague, Maxine was fixated on society’s slumber— “in a way, we’re all in a plague of unawareness”.  I can still hear her voice now, as it resounded through the children’s art room on the fourth floor of the Jewish Museum.  Every sentence she spoke was a short story of sorts.  You never knew when it was going to begin or how it would end.  What you did know was that it was genuine— it hadn’t been coated in layers of Ivy League political correctness.  That’s one thing about Maxine that was most likely true throughout: she was honesty personified.  Maxine had never chosen to learn how to lie.  And because she was so truthful, I felt like I could be truthful with her as well.  I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and for the class assignments, which were always letters to our instructor that begun with the words “Dear Maxine,” I wrote and shared short stories that were far from “academic.”  I had a sneaking suspicion that she’d rather hear my personal truth than whatever silvered scholarly regurgitation I could intellectually offer.

On May 12th, Daiyu sent us all an email, the subject of which read “Maxine is hospitalized”.  She had developed respiratory pneumonia the previous Saturday and had been rushed to the ER.  Daiyu, who had seen her that day, described her as “weak but okay”.  He added, “she asked for a book, so it’s a good sign :)”  We didn’t know whether Maxine would live or die, but Daiyu made it clear that our last class would be held without Maxine present.  We gathered together in the basement of the Jewish Museum.  People brought food, wine— one of our classmates brought her children.  We sat together and discussed the aesthetic experience.  We participated in a student-lead activity, in which one person described a held object, while the other person drew it based on their partner’s description.  Some of the students got a little tipsy; we reflected; and, invariably, the conversation shifted to a familiar topic— to the woman who was not in fact present at our final class.

It was me who raised his hand and said, “you know, it’s interesting.  There’s something about the fact that Maxine is not here that almost makes her more present.  She’s almost more here today by not being here.” In a sense, that was true.  Like the great teachers who had come before her— Plato, Dewey, Morrie— Maxine’s lessons would not fade out with her life, but rather blaze on, as a living legacy to the profound and impactful professional work she had done for the past 75 plus years.  Maxine was with us spiritually on May 13, even while her battle against the pneumonia that would end her life deprived us of her physical presence on 5th Avenue.

On May 29th shortly after 5pm, the following email presented itself in bold:

Guys,

Maxine passed away this afternoon.

She was home, with hospice care. She was 96.

Manana, Maxine’s caregiver, and I had believed all along that she would come out of this, as she has always done in the past. We were waiting for the day she would ask for her lipstick, always a sign of her recovery and willingness to see her friends and students. That day never came, and I am terribly sorry.

I just thought that I should let you guys know first, before you hear from the College. There were times that were difficult for her during the semester, but as her final class, I know she enjoyed you guys as she whispered from time to time how it was worth the effort.

Her words at the end of one class come to my mind in particular, when I asked her for her final words:

“There are no final words, but only questions.”

It was from Daiyu, the one among us who knew her the best.  Maxine Greene had passed away, a woman I barely knew, yet somehow had come to know quite well recently.  I had been fortunate enough to have been one of the 20 students in her last class, and I consider myself the better for it.  It had been, indeed, an aesthetic experience.  “Dear Maxine,” thank you for that.

Adam Wolfsdorf is a current doctoral student in English Education at Columbia University and an instructor in the Teaching of Writing at Teachers College.  Beginning this Fall, Adam will be the Coordinator of Columbia’s INSTEP program for Teaching of English and the Arts. He received his bachelor’s degree in English Literature at Harvard University, and has been teaching Shakespeare, American Literature, and Writing at Bay Ridge Preparatory High School in Brooklyn.  His recent short story, “Black Coffee”, was published this past April in Columbia’s literary journal ‘Catch and Release’.  In addition to Adam’s literary endeavors, he has toured professionally with the Broadway musical RENT, and has performed throughout the country in productions of Grease, Forever Plaid, and Children of Eden.  He is also the current lead singer of the nationally touring act The Energy, which has been featured on NBC, MTV, and ESPN.  Adam would like to thank you for reading and enjoying his work.  He’s currently developing a novel and a screenplay as well!

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