I was doing a bit of research over the summer and I kept running into the name of one of my grad-school professors, a marvelous scholar and teacher I hadn't thought about in years but suddenly I wondered how he was doing, what he was doing, whether he was still inspiring students and pushing them to greater levels of achievement and understanding. I ought to write him a letter, I told myself, but then the very next day I saw his name in the Chronicle of Higher Education, listed among the dead.
Too late! Here was a wonderful person who helped me through my Masters degree, gave me my only Incomplete in grad school (because I was giving birth to a baby and a thesis at about the same time), and then gave me an A in the class despite the fact that my seminar paper was written in the throes of new-baby sleep deprivation--yes, the same professor who demonstrated how to elegantly and efficiently cut an arrogant know-it-all down to size in the middle of class--and I'd missed my chance to tell him Thanks.
And now I wonder how many others I never got a chance to thank. What would I tell them if I could?
Dear Dr. H,
I hated it when you chewed me out in an elevator crowded with students and professors and I prayed that the elevator would go up those twelve or fifteen flights a little faster, but you know what? You were right. I needed to hear it. (Not necessarily in that time and place, but I survived.)
Dear Dr. K,
Yours was the first seminar I took in grad school and I was the only first-year student in the class, so I didn't know how ridiculous it was to request an extension on my class presentation. Thanks for making me stick to the schedule! You didn't dismiss me as a flake but pushed me to spend whole days in Special Collections immersing myself in fascinating material and preparing my first grad-school presentation, and then you hired me to proofread your book and gave me my first formal printed acknowledgment. Thanks for treating me like a scholar!
Dear Dr. P,
I didn't like your class, didn't like your jargon, and didn't like your dog. (Nothing personal, but small seminar room + hairy dog + allergies = misery.) I especially didn't like the way you made me read things that made me uncomfortable. But you introduced me to an author who inspired some of my best research and writing, and that was definitely worth a few sneezes.
Dear Dr. C,
I remember when you put James Joyce on the syllabus for an American novel class--you wanted to focus on the city as a character in fiction, and you insisted that students couldn't comprehend the concept without seeing how Dublin functions in Ulysses. That kind of risk-taking left me speechless with wonder and inspired a desire to push students beyond the expected. Well done! I hope you and Joyce are enjoying some long conversations in the authorial afterlife.
Dear Dr. C-squared,
You were the best. You're still the best. You will continue to be the best far into the future because you've passed your greatness on to others. There's really nothing more to say but thanks!
I could go on--but so could you.
(Extra credit to anyone who puts names to the initials.)