“Lee Iacocca once observed how in a completely rational society only “the best of us could be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.” In such a society, teachers would grace the covers of magazines, set trends, become rich and famous, and be treated as royalty. In our modern world, however, that pedestal is reserved for movie stars or athletes such as Tiger Woods, whom Golf Digest recently described as “an athlete so accomplished that he has become the world’s leading exemplar of excellence.” With that label, it seems that everyone who becomes the acknowledged master of a field becomes the Tiger Woods of that field.
My life after Emory has situated me squarely in the world of professional golf and, consequently, I may well be the only man alive to have insider knowledge of the impressive talents of both Tiger Woods and Professor Frank Pajares. They share a great deal of common ground: a deep passion for what they do, a powerful dedication to their craft, an ability to adapt their methods to use the latest tools of their respective trades. And they both have an enormous capacity to care for others, a capacity that manifests itself in their dedication to making the world a better place for children (Pajares through his work in education, Tiger through the Tiger Woods Foundation). In Iacocca’s universe, with education and entertainment in reversed positions on the cultural spectrum, Tiger Woods would be known as the Frank Pajares of golf.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.” I was there when he deepened his interest in the works of William James and incorporated them into his teaching, and when he wrote his first chapter on William James. He is now one of the world’s foremost experts and houses the authoritative website for everything William James. I watched him take an interest as the Internet emerged, mastering first HTML, then Java. His website has now won numerous awards. He can converse in detail about topics as broad as NFL Football, the history of Italian cinema, the times he acted with Mickey Rooney and dined with Italo Calvino, the international school he owned and sold. Professor Pajares doesn’t merely preach excellence, he embodies it every day. He doesn’t demand respect, he earns it. He is, in every sense, a modern Renaissance man.
One Saturday morning during the fall term of my second year as a PhD student, I was writing one of my qualifying papers and brought it in to the office to work on. “Dr. P” was in the office deeply immersed in a project of his own. I stopped in to see him at 9 a.m. and asked if he would have a quick look. He spent twenty minutes on the first sentence identifying strengths, weaknesses, and strategies for improvement. He then took me, over the course of several hours, sentence by sentence through the entire paper. He gave up his entire morning teaching me. I returned home energized and eager to exercise my newly acquired skills. I learned more about writing that morning than I had in the previous twenty-seven years of my life.
During my time at Emory, Dr. P. began the first week of every class with the fable of a village priest who arrives home after evening prayers, realizes that he has lost his house keys, and sets about looking for them in the wrong place simply because there is more light there. The fable is metaphorical, but the message is clear: before anything else, Dr. P wants to send his students the message that education is for enlightenment; that the pursuit of truth is about looking for things where they are rather than where we wish them to be.
I am now an associate professor of educational psychology at a university where the motto is fiat lux: let there be light. At the center of our campus lies a tower where every evening a light shines as a beacon and reminder of our pursuit as scholars. That’s the way Dr. P’s students often think of him, a symbol of teaching perfection whose passion, patience, and dedication are so resplendent as to often feel transcendent.