Captain in the Sunset

Sunday afternoon was too cold, the morning too dark.  We were heading north after a weekend in the Outer Banks when Mom called.  Dad was reading the obituaries again.  All it offered was that he’d died peacefully in the hospital after a brief illness. Charming pulled off the highway when he saw my reaction to her words.  Dr. Bogin was dead.

My high school Spanish teacher died recently, and Dad, having read her obituary, hadn’t needed to break the news lightly.  She’d openly disliked me and essentially ruined my cultural experience with a foreign language such that I abandoned it until an adjunct professor, Joey Warner, just passing through Belmont, rekindled a four-year dead passion.  I made it my minor.  I went to Spain.

People influence us, whether we’re open to the subsequent changes or not.  Knee deep in Dead Poets Society, my students and I are engaging in freewrites and discussions about choice, the role of authority in shaping adolescents, the struggle between tradition and non-conformity, and the reality and far-reaching effects of suicide.  We celebrate this fictional inspirational teacher for his unorthodox methods.  Mr. Keating promises his Ivy League bound protégés to think for themselves.

My high school Spanish teacher was probably too taxed by an unruly class to reel me back in.  She separated me from my friends because I was chatty.  What I saw as a punishment was probably a strategy to help me focus.  What I saw as harsh grading was probably just the presence of higher expectations than I had for myself.  Unfortunately, I heard constant negative feedback absent praise, and that was where she left me uninspired.  I’m sorry for her family’s loss.  Many students must have liked her.  In that final scene of Dead Poets Society, not all the boys are standing on their desks saluting their fallen captain.

I’ll remember Joey Warner, and I’ll praise him.  I wouldn’t understand it until I was myself a teacher, grateful in my first semester to have Jesse Wooten in my class.  When it seemed I’d lost their interest, Jesse would catch one of my sarcastic quips and I knew he was still with me.  He gave me energy.  Professor Warner once told me I’d done that for him.  I hung on every word of his tales about travels to Spanish-speaking countries, his beautiful Latin ex-girlfriend, and being tricked into eating fish eye tacos.

I didn’t shed a tear last week when Dad broke the news about my high school Spanish teacher.  It was at least five minutes after I’d hung up with my Mom on Sunday until I could choke out instructions that Charming should keep driving.  Dr. Bogin was dead at seventy.  I didn’t know he’d been sick.

The Mr. Keatings in our lives are the ones that help us learn how to make wise decisions for ourselves.  They draw out of us the approval and advice we so long to gain from them.  I’ve had the pleasure of a few Mr. Keatings in education, but Dr. Bogin was appointed for a season long after my schooling had ended.

It was about this time four years ago that I left Nashville, moved back in to my high school bedroom, and my mom thought to put in a call to Dr. Bogin’s office.  He was a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychiatry at Upstate Medical University who had worked with my brother a decade before.  The receptionist informed us he was not taking new patients, but Dr. Bogin recognized the name on the message and fit me in before work.  For a few months, I only left the house for our weekly sessions, the gym, and engagements my parents had scheduled.

I didn’t want to talk in our first session.  I didn’t have high expectations.  There were no highs.  I’d abandoned my marriage and my career and my home.  I was thirty.  I would soon be divorced.  The frilly floral comforter and lace canopy bed reminded me each morning of my failures.  I’d seen counselors before.  I was in that office because he’d made a positive impact in my brother’s life during his dark night.  This was mine.  Dr. Bogin could possibly pull me out of it, too.

I sought his approval, his advice, his judgment even.  Dr. Bogin’s clinical gift was in his ability to draw approval and advice and judgment out of me, such that I was confident in my choices.  Like Keating did with the boys in boarding school English class, Dr. Bogin questioned me and challenged me.  I spent a year and a half on his office love seat; it was the primary location where I crocheted my nieces’ baby afghans while we talked.  It was more of a dialogue than you’d think.

I didn’t always want to “go there”.  Dr. Bogin would let me sit in silence.  His presence, there behind his desk in those round-rimmed glasses you’d expect a psychologist to wear, was oddly patient and simultaneously expectant.  There were nights I’d leave his office and drive into the city streets in a much deeper darkness than that which surrounded me.  Those became fewer.  I found in our journey together that I had become more capable of making choices again, choices I would not regret.  I even dared to move away.  To start over.

The night before I left for Hampton was our last session.  July of 2014.  When we said goodbye, Dr. Bogin offered to do Skype sessions if I ever needed them and asked me to keep in touch.  A new life kept me distant.  My writing nights two years ago took shape, replacing our Tuesday night sessions back in Syracuse as a form of self-therapy largely possible because Dr. Bogin’s voice is still in my head.  Mr. Keating challenged his students to stand on his desk, to see the world from a different perspective.  Dr. Bogin taught me, through hundreds of hours of investment, that significant reflection would lead me to those alternate perspectives holding the answers I would find myself.

This is a fallen hero.  If I could stand on that office love seat and salute him, to honor him, I would.  I didn’t know he was sick.  He’s dead.  A light has gone out of this city in Upstate New York.  There should be a snowstorm like in one of the final scenes of Dead Poets Society when Todd runs out into the freshly fallen snow.  It’s a symbol in context.  Not of purity or beauty or a clean slate.  It’s a symbol of death.  Of nothingness.  Of the consequences of choices.

I would see Dr. Bogin again only one more time.  The summer before last I received an email from him when I was visiting my parents for my sister-in-law’s baby shower.  He’d seen my car in the driveway and invited me over to talk.  It turns out I shouldn’t have needed an address.  For years, he’d lived a stone’s throw away.  From his house, I could see my driveway.  He guided me through a beautifully manicured backyard to a patio table.

This was not a paid session.  There was no desk between us.  Dr. Bogin had invested in me, and he genuinely wanted to see the outcome.  I don’t believe he ever said the words, not even on that day, always careful to suspend any hint of moral or spiritual judgment, but somehow I knew in his deference toward me that he was proud of me.  I told him then that he’d changed my life.  At least those words weren’t left unsaid.

I don’t want a snowstorm to be the symbol for Dr. Bogin’s death.  No, for me, I make another choice.  I choose to see the sunset the night before I got the news, a moment when I had no reason to assume he no longer drew breath.  We were in Duck with Charming’s parents.  The sun set over the Sound.  It was cold.  It was equally beautiful.  It took my breath away, too.


Dr. Bogin’s death is a sunset in March.  This sun sets on a life lived fully, richly, compassionately.  It is cold, but it is equally beautiful.  The end of the day has a fixed and promised end, yet an unexpected passing is equally unchangeable.  I grieve him, and I honor him in the only way I know how.

I do what he taught me to do.  In my writing, I process the pain and the affection.  I weigh the loss and tragedy against the view from on top of the teacher’s desk.  I expect tragedy and find myself looking for peace in a sunset on the Sound.  Dr. Bogin’s still guiding me in the silences.

Now, in the symbol of the sunset, I say goodbye for the last time.  Oh Captain, my Captain.


Dennis Bogin PhD (January 19, 1947 – March 09, 2017)

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