War and Memory
A professor’s loss becomes his lesson plan
By Claire Nowak
Tom Durkin’s classroom looks nothing like a prison.
No metal bars cover the tall windows overlooking Wisconsin Avenue. Sunlight reflecting off the whitewashed walls brightens Marquette Hall 105 much more than the florescent ceiling lights.
It’s warm and inviting, though the 33 students filing in at 11 a.m. on a Thursday morning are glued to the lights coming from their phones.
But once Durkin starts the class, the phones go into pockets. All eyes fix on the 40-something English professor at the front of the room.
He tells them to answer questions from last night’s reading in their pre-assigned small groups, and they do. When they return to a full class discussion, a student raises his hand to share an insight, and everyone listens.
The attentiveness makes Durkin appreciate the fact that he’s no longer behind bars.
Durkin spent eight years teaching inmates — primarily 17-to-35-year-old men — in Illinois’s Cook County jail. They were gangbangers with felony charges learning to read and write.
His current students are Marquette University sophomores, juniors, and seniors pursuing college degrees, analyzing novels about war and its physical and psychological effects.
The only similarity between both jobs is how Durkin got them: He took over for a previous instructor. The Marquette English department asked him to teach a section of “Literature and Genre” because the original professor took a different course.
He got the position at Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp when his predecessor and best friend, James Foley, left to get a masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
It was a career move that made Foley a war correspondent.
Durkin met James Foley in 1992, as they began their freshman year at Marquette. Foley sat down next to Durkin at O’Donoghue’s Pub and struck up a conversation.
Four years later, the best friends graduated, Foley with degrees in history and Spanish, Durkin in English. Foley worked at Teach for America.
Durkin kept studying English at Boise State University. He had just earned his Ph.D. from Marquette when his friend decided his future lay in the Medill School of Journalism.
He pushed the Free James Foley campaign when Foley was captured by Colonel Gadaffi’s soldiers in 2011, and rejoiced at his release 44 days later. He grieved when ISIS released the video of Foley’s murder on Aug. 19, 2014.
The world grieved with him.
“This is part of what Marquette is.”
Durkin stands with his hands on his desk as he watches the students discuss Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Today, they talk about protagonist Billy Pilgrim and why he is so indifferent about his former home being destroyed by the war.
Durkin wears gray pants with a gray and white plaid dress shirt. A few undone buttons near the collar casually show a black tee underneath. His black book bag rests on a window sill with a Boston Red Sox baseball cap on top of it.
The “question to consider” on the whiteboard behind him reads:
What happens if we get ‘stuck’ in the past?
Beneath it, a more challenging idea:
If we cannot change the past, the present and the future, how should we live our lives? Think Optimistically!
Optimism does not come easily in a class called “War and Memory,” especially when both topics are harsh reminders of life outside the classroom.
The students read five war novels throughout the semester and consider various dynamics of war — its effect on soldiers and civilians, the importance of sharing their stories, the responsibility we have to those affected by war.
Responsibility toward veterans strikes a deep chord for Durkin. Telling war stories, especially those of war’s innocent victims, was the main focus of Foley’s work overseas.
While Durkin avoids tailoring the material to make Foley a recurring talking point — he waited until four weeks to even mention his connection to the photojournalist — he considers teaching this course a personal tribute to his friend and fellow alumnus.
“This is a guy that went here, that learned his values here, learned additional values here as he grew, and carried them with him,” he says. “This is part of what Marquette is.”
Durkin knows how to handle a classroom. He has sat in those seats. He knows lecturing in a core class with students of all ages and majors would “probably have them ripping their eyes out and cursing me.”
So he lets them compare their own ideas and perspectives. The students find it mind-opening, which is more than they can say for a “cookie-cutter” English class, as Jeffrey Kopaniasz, sophomore in the College of Nursing, puts it. It goes beyond following instructions for a 5–7 page, 12 pt. font, Times New Roman, 1-inch margins paper.
“He just presents (the material) in a way that you’re supposed to open up your mind,” Kopaniasz says. “He admitted today earlier in class, ‘There is no right or wrong answer.’ There’s so much interpretation.”
Durkin himself downplays his role. He says he wants students to think, if that guy teaching us got a Ph.D., we’re smart enough to do this stuff.
Things you can’t change
Durkin thinks about Jim every day.
How he was lost, returned, and lost for good.
How he didn’t deserve to die the way he did — nobody does.
That was, after all, what Jim stood for, the reason he went into belligerent countries in the first place. But now he translates those thoughts into class discussions.
Whether you believe in wars or not, people are fighting in them. So what do we do when they come back?
Do we have individual or collective responsibility to bring awareness to conflicts around the world?
He also thinks about what Jim would say if he knew about this new job.
“They hired you?!” Durkin laughs loudly and sincerely. “That’s exactly what he’d say. Something along those lines, like, ‘Alright man, go do it.’”
Durkin can’t help but “do it.”
The realities of war and memory are so entrapped in his person that even if he were teaching a completely unrelated course, somehow those themes would sneak into conversation — not to broadcast his loss, but to make the abstract concepts real to young minds who have likely never tasted the bitter fruits of war.
Here in this class, he is in his element. He is at peace.
As far as thinking optimistically?
“If you get stuck in the past, you get stuck worrying about the future, or you’re stuck in the present focusing on negatives and things like that, you’re not living the life you could,” Durkin says. “You could be enjoying life or enjoying the moment or recognizing the moment as opposed to always thinking about things you can’t change, things you can’t do anything about.”
He shrugs, “My take.”
At the front of the classroom, Durkin paces behind his desk, arms crossed, right hand holding his chin.
He listens to his students talk about losing individuality in war and free will and not being able to change a terrible past and moving forward regardless.
No doubt he’s thinking about Jim too.