Learning Curve


First Person

Curtis Gillespie on how a formative relationship with one of his professors grew increasingly complicated. 

I met Ronald Hamowy in the winter of 1984 when I took a course he was teaching at the University of Alberta called European Intellectual History. I didn’t know what intellectual history was and had never been to or cared much about Europe, but a friend recommended the course, so I signed up.

There were about twelve of us waiting around a seminar table the first day. Professor Hamowy was late and I chatted with some of the other students—Dusten, Steve, Pierre. Those three, who are still friends of mine, had taken other classes with The Hamster, as Pierre called him, and I was about to ask Pierre why he called him that when the door opened and Hamowy came in. I will forever recall the surprise of first seeing him. He was about four feet tall and tubby, in a dark blazer and Buddy Holly glasses. He walked to the table and hopped up to seat himself. After handing out a reading list and warning us not to expect a good mark, he canceled the rest of the class.

Pierre, Dusten, and Steve were going for coffee and said I should join them. I assumed it would be the four of us, but Hamowy gave us his coffee order and a five-dollar bill. When we got back to his office, I was overwhelmed by the thousands of books on his shelves and asked him if he’d actually read them all. He looked at me. I felt my ears get hot. A decent grade was unlikely to begin with, and now I’d insulted the prof.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Hamowy. “Who would ever want to read all these books?”

We laughed and a feeling of freedom went through me. I didn’t know you were allowed to laugh at learning. And I could see all over Hamowy’s round face how much he enjoyed making people laugh. He took his glasses off and wiped them, still chuckling. The other three were grinning at me, as if to say, Yeah, we can’t believe it, either.


The reading list Hamowy had handed out was bewildering. The only link between the books, as far as I could tell, was that the authors were European. There was philosophy, literature, social theory, economics—though not a lot that looked like history. Hamowy started us off with passages from Sartre and Camus, but in class the following week he talked mostly about the playboy lifestyles of the Parisian existentialists.

“Anyway,” he said near the end of class. “You only need to remember one thing. Camus was right and Sartre was wrong.”

The five of us had coffee again after class, and then I spent the next week trying to understand totalitarianism. At one point in our third class, Hamowy told us that the three most evil men of the twentieth century were Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill. That didn’t need writing down. Hamowy was just so odd. From five feet away, you could see his dandruff and smell his breath, and when he walked more than a few paces, he breathed like he had an oxygen tube up his nose. But he was hilarious, brainy, and had no filter.

It was about 6 P.M. when we finished with Stalin. It was a January night on the prairies, dark, cold, lunar. Hamowy said that we—meaning, Dusten, Steve, Pierre and myself—should come over to his place for a glass of wine, so we all piled into his car. I don’t remember who drove, though I know it wasn’t Hamowy (it was his car but I never once saw him drive it). He lived close by and it only took us a couple of minutes to get to his building. His apartment was a bigger version of his office. Every surface held books and journals, and every wall had a bookcase leaning against it. A large desk stood where other people might have put a dining room table. Sofas and chairs were arranged with no real pattern other than that they mostly faced the television.

Bottles were opened. The conversation went where it went: ideas, people, books, television shows, movies, opera. I sat sipping my wine, saying little. Over the first six or seven weeks of that term, Ron, as we all called him by then, would say things about his past in fragments I pieced together. He’d been born in Shanghai in 1937 to parents with Syrian, Jewish, and Egyptian roots. He grew up in New York City, then did graduate studies with Friedrich von Hayek at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and at Oxford, where he was tutored by Sir Isaiah Berlin. He was gay, he founded a libertarian magazine in grad school, he argued in print with William F. Buckley Jr., and in person with Ayn Rand.

But Ron did a lot of listening, too, because he liked our energy, our youth, our humor, the way our differences didn’t matter. Dusten was tall, self-assured, also gay, and easily Ron’s intellectual equal. Steve was easygoing and athletic, the kind of guy who went winter backpacking in the mountains. Pierre was a Quebecois, opera-singing basketball player who later dated my cousin. In the weeks and months to come, other students would show up: Leonard, who laughed like a smoker and gave off a sweaty Slavic intensity; Sandra, who feared no one and berated Ron for being a sexist pig; Craig, a bushy-haired oddball who ended up becoming a celebrated historian at Cambridge. There was also William, Ron’s roommate, a grad student whose role in Ron’s life I never did fully understand.

The joy and belonging I felt in this new circle vanished when I got my first essay back from Ron. A 5, barely a passing grade on the 9-point U of A system. Blunt criticisms were written on every page. I spoke to Ron right after class and he said that for an essay so sloppily written and with no ideas, a 5 actually wasn’t that bad a mark. He suggested we meet in his office the next day to discuss it. The group was headed to his place, as usual, but I begged off, depressed by the grade.

I wanted my professor’s approval, as any student does, and I was dejected because I felt exposed as someone who didn’t belong. I knew the others’ marks and they knew mine. Dusten got the highest mark in the class, naturally, and both Steve and Pierre did well. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that if I was that far below average there was no way to stay part of the circle.

I had already taken post-secondary journalism and English in Calgary, but hadn’t done well. The story I told myself to excuse my underperformance was that I hadn’t yet found the thing worthy of my gifts. Now I’d stumbled across something exciting and motivating—the class and the group—only to be shown the real problem. Sitting with Ron in his office the next day, he said he could tell from the conversation at his place that I wasn’t stupid, but that my paper combined laziness and bad technique. He explained that an undergrad paper wasn’t complicated. Read smarter people, take their best thoughts, and then weave them into your own, always giving credit. When you’re done writing, edit and then edit again. Once you do ten or twelve papers like that, he said, you’ll see patterns. If you’re lucky, you might start to have ideas of your own. He was patient and deliberate, and he made it seem possible.

The next week I was back in class. Ron had assigned chapters from Ecce Homo but spent most of the time discussing whether or not Nietzsche’s syphilis had driven him insane, as well as repeating his aphorisms like, “If you go to a woman, take a whip” and “The fourth cardinal virtue for the creation of a civil society is politeness.” These principles struck me as less than consistent with one another, but I kept quiet. I figured I was missing a subtlety in there somewhere. I knew I could always ask Dusten to explain it to me later.

One night closer to the end of term we were all to meet at Ron’s, but when I got there no one else had arrived. While Ron and I were chatting, he asked what my plans were. I was confused. School, he said. Education. He’d been impressed with the way I had responded to his feedback and he could see the day where I might be able to do grad work with him as my supervisor. But I had to agree to a few things first, mostly to work harder and to demonstrate more commitment. He wanted to know if I was ready to stop drifting. If so, he would help.

Some of the others came in then, Craig, Dusten, Steve, Pierre. Soon I was part of the blissful hum of it all, thinking that my intellectual life, my adult life, had finally begun. When I got my final essay back from Ron a couple weeks later, I went straight to the back page, and the first word I saw was Better. It was a decent grade, a 7. My final grade was a 6, still below the class average. But I spent the entire summer back in Calgary focused on that one word: Better.


When the fall term began, I switched my major from English to History. I was in two of Ron’s classes, pre-Enlightenment thought and the history of Russian ideas. One of my new classes was British Empire and Commonwealth, taught by Phil Lawson. He was just ten years older than me, outgoing, with a young family. He was more conventional than Ron, but who wasn’t? Phil and Ron got along, which was unusual, given that Ron never hid his low regard for his fellow academics.

Everything seemed to be going right. The salons picked up where they’d left off. A girl I liked was liking me back. I even got an 8 on a paper from Ron, a look at “The Grand Inquisitor” segment from The Brothers Karamazov. During the class in which we looked at the Russian giants, Ron said, offhandedly as always, that Tolstoy might have been a great storyteller, but Dostoevsky was like fire or water or air, an element the planet couldn’t do without.

I got a call from Ron one Sunday morning, late October. William was away and Ron wanted a ride to go pick up his New York Times Sunday edition. When we got back, he said I could come up for a visit. After we’d opened up sections of the paper, he leaned over and handed me a key ring with two keys, door and building. He found it irritating, he said, getting up from his desk to answer the buzzer. He’d also given keys to others in the group.

On the final day of class that term, Ron came in holding a standard manila envelope, which he told us contained the university’s new brain child: student evaluations. He was outraged that someone, anyone, thought it was a good idea for students to rate their teachers. After a short but intense rant, he dropped the envelope into the trash bin, then walked out.

Later, at his place, I thought I’d tease him by telling him I had filled out the form after he left. The others were on their way over, and I was looking forward to what was essentially an early Christmas party. Most of us would be leaving town for the holidays in a week or so.

Before sitting down, I took Ron’s dandruff-speckled blazer and tossed it on a different chair. He asked me what I was doing. I explained that I didn’t want to wrinkle it, but it turned out he kept his wallet in his jacket pocket. My action bothered him. What if I’d casually tossed the jacket around and the wallet had fallen out? Was I so disrespectful that I didn’t I think these things through?

I apologized, but he wouldn’t drop it. If I was disrespectful, did that also mean I was disorganized? Messy? Was I inconsiderate of the people around me? He turned to my tidiness, even my ablutions. Did I leave globs of toothpaste in the sink, wet towels on the floor? He carried on for another minute or two about hating messes in the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room. Then he fixed a look on me and added bedroom to the list.

Panic rolled over me, and not just because those words were coming from Ron. I’d had a few girlfriends since high school and had gotten intimate with some of them, to varying degrees, but I hadn’t actually closed the deal. It was a less sexualized time then, though I suppose it was still unusual for a twenty-three-year-old to not have slept with anyone. It wasn’t because I was fearful or inept—though of course I was—but because I was virtuous. Or had been. I’d been raised Catholic, had been an altar boy, wanted to be a priest until I was about twelve or thirteen, and had remained pure. I wasn’t even all that private about it. I had told a couple of girlfriends that it was okay to mess around but that I wanted to be in a life relationship before I made the leap. I think back to the things I said to some of those girls, and I cringe at how I must have sounded. So honorable, so chaste. So ridiculous.

But it must have been a little sexy, too, because those girls didn’t hide their willingness. There were opportunities. But I held my ground. I was waiting. I was “honest” with them, and that alone made me different. But the longer it went on, the less I believed the lines. It was idiotic. Lots of guys I knew lied to women to get them into bed, but I was lying to keep them out of my bed. I had had to find a rationale to justify not getting laid when I was an unattractive teenager, and that was the one I’d picked. I no longer needed the altar boy angle after I’d shed my baby fat, my skin cleared up, and I began to speak in full sentences, but I guess I’d woven it into my identity too tightly to just yank it out. It’s hard to say for sure; it was a long time ago and I have tried to forget as much of it as I possibly can.

So this was my state, which Ron knew nothing about but must have sensed, when he put those words to me about disliking mess in the bedroom. I remember I mumbled that I was tidy enough, aiming for something noncommittal. I didn’t fully enjoy our party that night, and went home for the Christmas break feeling different, inhabited by something. I didn’t talk about it with my parents, or with my friends. It was my problem to solve.


Ron had given me an 8 in one first-term class and a 7 in the other, and was complimentary of the progress I’d made. I was seeing similar results elsewhere, including Phil’s British History course. The big news, though, was that William had decided to pursue a Ph.D. elsewhere. When the next school year began, Ron would be without a roommate.

In the new year, Ron called me up more than he had in past terms: to move a table, drive him to an appointment, fetch some books. The salons were happening regularly and we’d become a close group. Ron was still the adult in the room, provocative and funny, never inappropriate. Let me rephrase that. He tried to make trouble every time he opened his mouth, but he was never physically inappropriate, at least not around me.

A month into the second term, Ron floated the idea that I should move in with him the following year. My plan was to do grad school qualifying and then an M.A., which meant another three years in Edmonton. Ron said he had room. It was close. He wouldn’t charge me rent. There was, he said, no reason not to.

I don’t recall ever saying the words, “Yes, I’ll move in,” but around the department Ron began to refer to me as his student and it became a given, to him, that I would be moving in come fall. In some ways it was flattering, but there were nights when I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, focusing on my breathing to ease the stabbing pains in my stomach. I wanted to be Ron’s student. I wanted to keep learning from him. I wanted to be his friend, and ultimately his peer and colleague. But, somehow quite suddenly, that didn’t feel like the way it was going.

Ron never did talk about the move-in around the others, but I remember wondering why he hadn’t asked Dusten or Steve or Pierre. They were all continuing at the U of A, and all eventually did grad school. So why me? It wasn’t until long after it was all over that I understood it was because I was more malleable than the others, less formed as a person. I was smart enough to be Ron’s grad student and witty enough to keep up, but he didn’t need smart or funny. He needed soft clay.

He tried to shape things through other means as well. He invited me out for dinner one night with friends of his, two fellow academics named Teddy and Helen Liebel-Weckowicz. They were both older and eccentric. Insane, Ron told me beforehand, the pair of them. They were the only peers of Ron’s I ever saw him socialize with. The four of us went to the Faculty Club for dinner one March night. The conversation was hard to focus on, as Teddy had the unfortunate habit of speaking loudly with his mouth full, often sending shiny bits of food onto my plate. Helen asked me sweetly daft questions, always in relation to Ron. Halfway through the dinner it hit me that, of course, Ron must have told them I’d be moving in with him. The way Helen looked at me during that dinner, as if I was Ron’s new pet, would have put me off my food if Teddy hadn’t already.

The term ended. I was now doing solid, if basic, writing and research, and I knew I’d be able to handle the grad school qualifying year. Ron’s mentorship had been the biggest part in this, though Phil Lawson had helped. But I felt emotionally cornered, a feeling I couldn’t uncouple from my studies. Ron was using the value of his mentorship—and it was valuable—to steer me his way. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing.

Ron asked me to come over before leaving for the summer break. He must have sensed something was up, because he told me that this was an important time in my life, but that it was about more than academics, and I needed to make the right decisions. Over the summer, he called me every few weeks. He called once during a family event and I had to take the phone into a separate room. He said he hadn’t heard from me since he’d last called and what kind of relationship was it when the communication only flowed one way? Through the window I could hear my relatives shooting the breeze in the backyard. I wanted to be out there with them, drinking beer, standing by the barbecue. What it all came down to, Ron said, was this: Was I planning on living my life according to what other people thought and said? Was that the type of person I wanted to become? I know you, he said, and you’re not that type of person.

When I went back to Edmonton at the end of the summer, I didn’t want to be Ron’s adjunct, but I wanted to keep learning, keep hearing his laughter, to stay in the circle. I wasn’t worried about losing my friends, but I didn’t want to talk to Dusten or Steve about it because I didn’t want them to have to choose sides. I couldn’t talk with my parents because I knew they’d have been worried by such a strange arrangement. The only person I felt I could unburden myself to was Phil Lawson. I shared it all with him over tea and a KitKat, and he was supportive if guarded. “I’m not saying don’t do it,” he said. “I’m just saying you’d be getting into bed with someone who is very complicated.” There was a pause, and then we laughed.

Phil’s unintentional joke made me wonder, again (and still), what exactly Ron wanted from me. He was lonely and he needed help getting through life, anyone could see that, but what else was he grooming me for? Sex? Partnership? There were certainly times that I wondered what it meant to be gay and how I knew I wasn’t. I mean, how did I know? I wasn’t attracted to men (if I had been, I’d have been all over Dusten), but I couldn’t say I liked straight sex, for the simple reason that I didn’t know what any sex was like. I had never felt the desire to have a boyfriend and I was attracted to girls, but I was still a pretty open-minded kid. Yet after Ron grilled me about my habits that day, I was repulsed by the notion of him in a bedroom. I’m ashamed even now of how cruel those words are, but it’s what I was thinking.


A couple days after seeing Phil, I went over to Ron’s place. He began talking about my move-in and how he didn’t want it to be disruptive. I don’t even remember how I changed the direction of the conversation, but in recalling his response I must have said something about needing to be super honest.

Super honest,” he said. “I hope I can handle that.”

I tried to tell him that I didn’t know if we had the same sense of who I was going to be if I moved in. I was shaking and I’m sure I was barely articulate. He didn’t respond and then I said, “And you know I’m not gay, right?”

He sat there with both legs sticking off the front of the couch. He had often said, during the time I knew him, that Socrates felt the body was a vessel for the soul. He repeated the line now. Then he asked if he had heard me right, if I actually thought a relationship was about fucking? He said fucking like someone might say gardening or vacuuming. You don’t honestly think, he added, that whatever a person is deep down has anything to do with fucking?

I could see the hurt on his face. He wasn’t crying, but looked like he might. Even more painful, to me, I could see him reassessing every minute he’d ever spent with me. He told me to leave. I asked if we could talk about it a bit more.

“No,” he said. “I do not want to talk about it a bit more.”

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me. I left and never entered his apartment again.

Stepping into the elevator, I felt so many things it’s hard to name them all: guilt, relief, shock, loss, confusion. I felt pathetically and irreversibly shallow. I was sick with anguish as I drove to my grandparents’ house. It took me days to even make it back to campus. It’s a measure of how little I understood Ron, or anything, that once I got over the shock of it all, I still thought he might call and tell me we could remain friends.

We managed to avoid one another during my final year at the U of A, but I did see him one more time. It was in 1995, at Phil Lawson’s heartbreaking funeral (he’d passed away at the age of forty-five from cancer). I was there with my wife and our newborn daughter. Ron was sitting in a pew with his partner, a young male librarian. He looked at me and nodded. Nearly two decades later, I came across an obituary for Ron. He had died in September of 2012, from complications due to various illnesses. He was seventy-five. I had been thinking about him anyway because of the number of campus-power-imbalance cases in recent years, all of which I take as a sign that the days of the intimate professor-student relationship are coming to a close. This is a mostly positive development because it’s ethically impossible to say those were the good old days, though I will always feel there was good to be found somewhere in there.

Reading about Ron’s death made me think of a particular Saturday afternoon, the last term I was part of his circle. He called me up, coughing, sneezing, and wanted to know if I could run over to the drugstore for him. When I got to his apartment with his medication he greeted me in a kimono, maybe a nod to his Shanghai years. He was fully clothed underneath—slacks, dress shirt, dark socks, slippers—but he was unshaven and his hair was greasy. He really did look miserable, and I felt sorry for him. He offered me a cup of tea. I sat in the kitchen waiting for the water to boil while he went to the bathroom. There was no music playing and the television was off. The curtains were drawn. Without Dusten’s intelligence, Steve’s good nature, Pierre’s sophistication, Leonard’s intensity, without these people filling Ron’s world, the apartment felt lonely and empty. Ron came back and sat across from me. After opening a few containers, he took six or eight pills and jammed them in his mouth. I must have made a face, because he told me he could cram a lot more than that down his throat if he had to. I asked him why he was an expert pill-taker. Health issues, he said.

Eventually, I got up to leave. He saw me out. Standing at the door, he thanked me again and told me it was good to know he could count on me.


Curtis Gillespie has written five books, is the editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine and has received seven Canadian National Magazine Awards.