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A PROFESSOR’S LESSON 30 YEARS AGO

On one winter semester, during college in upstate New York, I took an 8 AM history class to fulfill a requirement. It was hard to get up for that class, but about 15 of us met 3 times a week to brave the cold winds and trudge to that lecture in a non-descript classroom.

The professor of that class was an odd fellow.  He had flaming red hair, unusually looking slept on, and wore galoshes with one pantleg in and one out.  He would creep shyly into the room wearing his hooded winter coat, once not even removing the hood during the lecture.  He was terribly ill at ease with the class and clutched the lecture barely looking up at all through his gold-rimmed glasses at his students.

I felt that I needed to do something to stem the boredom that would ensue in his lecture, so I created a little game for myself. I would vow to find something in his lecture to ask him an intelligent question about, forcing me to pay attention rather than letting my eyes close. The first time I raised my hand, you could tell he was surprised and a little reluctant to find out what I wanted. However, he was obviously pleased to have a question to answer. In fact, his answers were always interesting.

I continued to do this every day of the course and found myself actually enjoying the material. The professor seemed to become a bit more relaxed and some of the other students even joined in from time to time. My little game had saved me from being bored, as it was designed to do. And, I learned quite a bit about ancient world history in the bargain. The professor obviously knew his material, but had a hard time passing it on to undergraduates in an interesting way. For all of his odd appearance, he was indeed quite an expert in his field.

But, the real lesson I was to learn had yet to happen. On the last day of class, we gathered our books and headed out to the door for the last time. The shy, red-haired professor stepped directly in front of me, with obvious efforts as I reached the door and put out his hand. He said, “I want to thank you for making this class so interesting,” as he shook my hand vigorously and smiled for the first time. I was so surprised. To me, it had been a pleasant way to pass the time in an elective. I had no idea that all of my question asking had any effect on him or the others at all.

That moment has stayed with me for 30 years. Each of us, through the things we say and do, the kindnesses we can freely offer, can have a profound effect not just on our own experiences, but those of others. I do not recall the facts I had learned in his class, but I will never forget the professor who taught me a lesson about the power of kindness, intended or not.

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