An Ode to Mark Behr, the Strangest and Greatest Academic Advisor I’ve ever had by Sarah Mina Osman

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

 

The first time I met Mark Behr, my academic advisor in college, was at a welcome meeting for creative writing students. We sat around a table, either glaring at one another or staring at our feet, when he broke the silence. 

“Would you like to hear a lullaby in Swahili?” He asked, a splashy grin stretched across his face. Before any of us could reply, he began to drum the table and chant. We all looked from one another, back to Mark, then back down at our feet. The other creative writing teachers clapped along, swaying their heads from side to side. I wondered how often he did this. He finished with a flourish, stood up, and bowed. 

“I am Mark Behr, and I’m the head of Creative Writing. I’m from South Africa. That’s how I know Swahili!” Unsure of what to do, we clapped a few times. 

“Thank you, thank you. Now it’s time for all of you to get to know each other. We know that writers love socializing!” He laughed at his own joke. “Now, go, go, fiction and non-fiction folks come over here.”

A clump of us stepped towards him, who gave each one of us a packet of papers to fill out. “Just some information we need from you and some questions for you to answer. There’s some starter questions for you to get to know one another. Now off you go!”

We turned the corner and looked at the questions. 

“So uh, are you guys studying fiction or?” I began. I hadn’t yet many anyone in my major. I had only met Dan, a theater major whom I had met the night before. Dan had engulfed me in a hug and announced that he put in 40 dollars for the alcohol. The party seemed to consist mostly of theater and film majors, which were the two dominant majors at our tiny arts school in Santa Fe. I had heard that creative writing was the third most popular, yet no writers had emerged at the party. 

“Fiction,” A boy with vibrant green eyes answered. He set his paper down and leaned in. We could tell he had some good chisme, so we all leaned forward. “So did you guys hear that Mark Behr is the hardest professor on campus? I once heard that he took someone’s short story and lit it on fire!”

“What?!”

“Yea, yea.” He sat up straighter. He now had a captive audience. “He read the first page of this guy’s short story, pulled out a lighter, and set it on fire. He told him to not ever bring him shit to read ever again.”

“Oh damn,” we all murmured. We stared down at our feet. What if he set our papers on fire? How often did he do this? 

“You want to know what I heard?” Another student Leaned closer. “I heard he was a spy in South Africa. He apparently killed a lot of people!”

“No way! That can’t be true!”

“Nah, I think it is, this senior was talking about it at a party last night–”

“You can’t have heard that right, you were probably drunk–”

“You guys went to the party last night? Did anyone else meet Dan?” 

“Sarah Osman?” The chisme ceased. A new head poked out at us. A perky Latina woman was carrying a clipboard. “Mr. Behr will see you now.”

The group stared at me as though I were about to walk down death row. “Good luck…”

I followed the woman to Mark Behr’s office, a cramped office swamped with books. I marveled at the sight. I had never seen anyone try to fit the entire library from Beauty and the Beast into such a cramped space. I peered at a few titles, which ranged from a tattered copy of South African short stories to a history of LGBT literature. 

“Ah, Sarah,” Mark Behr grinned at me. His teeth shined. He took off his glasses and rubbed them on a corner of his shirt. The sun bounced off of his bald head. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ll be your academic advisor.”

My heart jumped at the thought that the professor who set people’s papers on fire would be in control of my future. “Okay…”

“So let’s have a look at your schedule.” He whipped out a piece of paper and handed it to me. I studied over my courses.

“Is there a problem?” He grinned. I was slightly alarmed at how easily he could read me. How did he know I wasn’t happy with my schedule just by watching me read it? 

“Well no, but I’m not sure I need one of these classes, Mr. Behr.” I pointed at one labeled ‘Intro to College. How to have a Successful Freshman Year.’ “This seems unnecessary. I feel like I can manage college on my own. Is there another class I could take?”

“Of course!” I jumped a bit at his reaction. “Let’s have a look at the course schedule, shall we?” He burrowed into his desk and pulled out a shattered course guide. He flipped through the pages, murmuring about various courses to himself. He finally slammed the course guide down in triumph. 

“I found your course! Introduction to Middle Eastern Dance!”

“Uh….” I wasn’t sure if this was the right time to bring up that I was half Egyptian, or if he somehow already knew that. Maybe he could also read minds or had a file for each of his students. Our campus was small enough that he could have.  “Why belly dancing?”

“Well you will need at outlet other than writing,” He typed up some notes on his computer. “Writing can be very taxing. It takes a lot out of you, you will see. But dance, dance is freeing. It’s not as calculated. You’re not in your head all the time.” He pointed to his brain. “You will need something else to express yourself. Plus–” He grinned, “Belly dancing is quite sexy!” He sprang up and began to shake his hips. “See? See how fun it is?” He tried to roll his chest. I wasn’t sure if this was something I should be watching. 

“Um, well I am half Egyptian. But I’ve never danced before.” I looked down at my folded hands. “What if I’m not good at it?”

“Who cares?” Mark Behr sprang to his feet and sprinted towards the door. I trotted after him. “It’s to be freeing! Fun! Enjoyable! And you’re Egyptian! You are meant for this!”

We met the woman who had pulled me in earlier. “Maria, sign this young lady up for belly dancing! She’s my latest advisee and she’s going to have an amazing freshman year!” He wrapped his arms around me. “And call me Mark!”

Mark twirled back towards his office. 

I had never met a teacher like Mark before. I would never meet or have another one like him. But it’s because of him that I went on to become a teacher and lead my own quirky group of advisees. 

*

Mark Behr didn’t just introduce me to one of my biggest passions, dance, he also helped me to address my own mental health. 

I fell into a deep depression after my first semester of college. I felt lost. I missed home and was questioning my identity as a writer. Moving from Los Angeles to Santa Fe had not been easy. I didn’t know how to handle a place that was drowned out by mountains, where it snowed every year, and where there wasn’t another town around it for t least 60 miles. To deal with my culture shock, I drank.  Nearly every weekend I partied. Then it became every night I was drinking. I eventually succumbed to alcohol poisoning. 

“I think I should go home,” I told Mark. He didn’t make any noise as he listened to me. He rested his face on his hand, slightly studying me. “I don’t know what I want to do. I don’t think I’m meant for this.” I looked down. “I also kept drinking last semester. Sometimes I have trouble getting out of bed. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Mark Behr leaned back, looking out at the patches of snow outside. 

“I know it’s a cliche, but having depression is really like being stuck in a bell jar. The rest of the world looks blurry to you. I would know, I’ve dealt with depression all my life. I kept smoking weed to deal with it, but that wasn’t the way to go about it.” He looked back at me. “Every time I feel just a twinge of depression, I go see a therapist. There’s no shame in it. It’s better to deal with it rather than let it go on.” 

He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled on it. “I’m going to send you to the school’s psychologist. I also think we should put you in some classes that interest you. What is it that you’ve always wanted to study but never got the chance to? I know you like dance, maybe a music class?” He once again pulled out his battered copy of the course catalog. “Let’s see what we have here…”

After going to therapy, I learned that I did indeed have depression. I was put on a light antidepressant and began to learn management techniques. I took a vocal class as well as a class called “Coyote Healing,” where I learned about different forms of spirituality. I made a few close friends and even got a boyfriend. After about a month into my new life, I ran into Mark. 

“Sarah!” He cried, flashing his brilliant smile at me. “You are glowing! Tell me everything!”

“Well, I got a boyfriend,” I blushed. “And I’m really enjoying my classes.”

“That’s amazing! I could just tell there was something different about you.” He grabbed my upper arm and geared me towards his office. “Tell me all about it.”

As the years went on, Mark and I grew closer. He convinced me to leave America and study abroad in Australia, which would introduce me to the wonder of travel. He encouraged me to submit my writing out for publication. He continued to help me pick classes that not only interested me, but challenged me. I was sad to hear that Mark was leaving our college to teach in Memphis, but I also knew that other students should learn from him, and not just me. I wished him luck and he wished me luck, and we went our separate ways, chatting on Facebook from time to time. 

*

A few years after I graduated, I received a gut wrenching text. 

Hey, did you hear what happened to Mark Behr?

No. What happened?

He died. He had a heart attack or something like that. It’s really crazy, he was in his early 50s.

I didn’t know how to respond. I hadn’t spoken to Mark Behr in years. I hadn’t thought to. Yet I should have. A few tears streamed down my cheek. 

Yea, that’s crazy…

I was getting off a plane when I got the news. I tried to hide my face so that other passengers wouldn’t see me. I didn’t want to explain why I was crying, nor could I explain the profound impact that Mark had had on me. It was even difficult explaining it to my husband when I returned home. 

I never actually had Mark as a professor. I never had him set a paper of mine on fire or teach me South African literature. He wasn’t a teacher for me; he was more of a pseudo parent. And once I became an advisor myself, I learned that it’s far more than keeping students on track to graduate. The students become your pseudo children. You learn about their home life, their favorite TV shows, their love life, and their fears. 

I don’t think I would be half the advisor I am today had it not been for Mark. Even though there are many days where my advisees want to discuss who my third favorite Jedi is or the latest wrestling match, there are also days where they reveal far more of themselves. I am sorry that no other student will have the pleasure of being guided by Mark, but I am thankful that I now have the opportunity to carry on his work. 

 

Sarah Mina Osman is a writer and English teacher living in Los Angeles, CA. She has written for Huffington Post and HelloGiggles. When she’s not writing or teaching, she loves to travel and dance. She also deeply cares about tacos and sloths.