76: Teacher Student

76: Teacher Student

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Teacher Student

The years teach much which the days never knew.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was working my way through college, cramming four years of college into ten, as my friends teasingly tell me. One year, spring rolled around and I needed to finish several elective classes. One of the few that both sounded interesting and meshed with my work schedule was Medical Anthropology.

I remember two things from the class. The first is a vague sense that I liked the class, the second was a woman, who I will call Pat, who I met in the class.

I noticed her immediately as I entered class the first evening. She was the only person in the class with white hair.

The only path that did not make me walk between people in conversation or across the front of the classroom was one that led to an open seat directly beside her. Thankfully, I took that path.

Pat smiled, and greeted me cordially. She was one of those people you would describe as having “never met a stranger.” People with that demeanor often make me uncomfortable, but for some reason I was instantly at ease with Pat.

After that night, we always sat beside one another and talked about the deepest and oddest things, sometimes even as the professor was lecturing. I do remember professorial glares or throat clearing directed at us. When they occurred, Pat would put her hand on my arm and say, “Hush, we have to be good now,” and then laugh.

One night I asked Pat why she was there. “I mean, why aren’t you taking it easy? You have earned the right to slack off. Why take this class?”

Her response was immediate. “Because I love Anthropology. I always wanted to get a degree in Anthropology, but my parents and my friends threw a fit. They told me it was a wasted degree. ‘Be sensible,’ they said. So they talked me into taking elementary education classes and getting a teaching degree.”

“That does sound sensible,” I said.

“It was!” she replied, laughing. “I led a very sensible, safe life. I became a teacher, married my high school sweetheart, had children, and we saved for a retirement, promising each other we would eventually travel. But I knew in my heart we wouldn’t. We were too settled.”

She continued: “I never took any risks. I never let those dreams I had as a girl come to the surface, but they were there, buried away. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good life, but not what I dreamed.”

“So how did you get here? What made those dreams come back? The opportunity and time to take classes?” I asked.

“Well, about three months before my husband was to retire, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I fell into a funk for two years. I felt my life was over. Then one day I woke up, and simply said, ‘Pat, you can’t go on like this. This is not living.’ So I got out of bed, opened the curtains, and decided I was going to live. I realized that one of the things I missed was the sense of giving and being needed. I had felt that as a teacher and I wanted to feel it again. So I went right down and applied at the Peace Corps — I figured I could teach English to children in another country and learn about a foreign culture.

“My own children thought I had gone absolutely insane, to the point of talking about having me committed, but off I went to Afghanistan. I taught in a small village for two years until, unfortunately, I fell and broke my hip. It was a rather nasty fracture, and required quite a bit of surgery and rehab, and it took me eighteen months to get back on my feet, but unfortunately I couldn’t return to Afghanistan.

“By that time I was determined to live, to actually live each day, no matter what. I decided I would do the things that were important to me and I would not squander another day of life — it is too precious a gift. So I enrolled in college to get that Anthropology degree, and here I am, at seventy-one, working on my degree.”

I never encountered Pat after the course was finished. I have no doubt, though, that she got that degree. In the process, the wise old teacher taught a young man a lesson in life. Living the lesson is harder than teaching it, I have found. But I haven’t forgotten Pat or her lesson, and I have come to believe it is a lesson we all should learn.

~Daniel James

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