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The Professor’s Lesson

 Empty college library

I still remember seeing him the first time and well over 20 years have now passed.

Slowly walking with a cane and looking through larger-than-life glasses he seemed to be lost in thought. I didn’t know him, yet I wondered if he had lost his way as he seemed to stumble toward an unknown destination.

He was just the kind of guy you wouldn’t walk up to and strike up a conversation. He was someone who you either thought was constantly lost in his own thoughts or was quietly dissecting your own from across the desk.

He intimidated. Even from a distance, he seemed odd to me.

I would soon be reminded that I needed to sign up and take his course. It was my third year at Radford University and I had decided on a minor in Political Science.

You have got to take a class from that guy my fellow students had told me.

I must have been convinced.

Every seat was filled that first day of class. I did not, however, know why.

Every effort was made by our professor that day to remind us that attendance was not mandatory – an odd declaration it seemed to me if one wanted students to fill seats in a college classroom.

College students were well known, after all, to find excuses to skip classes, right? Here was a guy giving permission to us to not return.

I admit to being frightened when he would call me suddenly by my last name. I wanted to impress, I didn’t want to disappoint.

The professor had it figured out.

An educator who didn’t believe in standing at the front of the room, he sat in a simple wooden chair in front of us. He occasionally stood up to limp around the room for short spells. I had the impression that the chair brought him discomfort. Perhaps he didn’t walk around the room for proximity sake – he just needed to move a bit.

Lesson learned.

It’s not the material that captivated us. It was the storyteller in front of us. It was the unpredictability that now encourages me to suddenly change into an Australian accent, share a personal story, or attempt to put a smile on a student’s face (see previous post).

I had also been gifted a lesson in listening and learning, versus quickly judging and thinking I knew it all. If my story ended with a lesson about teaching, it would be a good memory, but it wouldn’t begin to share the bigger lesson.

I don’t clearly recall when, but it was some time later that I learned more about why my professor stepped hesitantly and needed a cane. It seemed that my impression that he sat uncomfortable in a chair might have been true.

I would learn that this man who walked with hesitation had done what few of us can imagine ever having the courage to do. He had, in fact, thrown himself on a mine to save his comrades while serving during the Vietnam War.

Another lesson learned.

Thank you Dr. Pappas.