January 22 , 2007
Thank you for letting me be your professor ... again
by steve nowicki, charles howard candler professor of psychology
Four years ago, at the end of my summer stay in England, I suffered a heart attack the day before I was to return to the United States. After being stabilized for 10 days in England, I returned home and had quadruple bypass surgery. The surgeon and cardiologist were former undergraduate students of mine and wonderful, but my recovery was slow and painful. I often thought I’d never be able to teach again. I wrote the following while I was administering my final exam at the end of my first class back after my surgery.
I’ve been away for a long while. Now I’m back. I look at you as though I’m seeing you for the very first time.
I’m giving a final examination. Now that I think about it, I always seem to be giving you an examination.
I know I do some teaching as well, but when I teach I guess I’m so much into my teaching that I really don’t stop and look at you like I should. But I see you now.
You are 120 of Emory’s finest in various states of dress….or undress. One of you is a guy in a tank top, even though it is near freezing outside. Another of you is in a suit and looks like a budding CEO. But most of you are in the “uniform” chosen by most for exams, sweatshirt and jeans. I see many Emorys, but there are Harvards, Yales, Princetons and even a few Georgias.
I realize, as I take a longer look at you, that the classroom is crowded not only by you but also with all my students from years past. It is a bit of a shock to feel their presence; to feel them with me once more . . . and then in a moment I realize that they never really left. They always sit there right along with you in every class I teach.
And I remember all of you.
You who always came to class, but couldn’t suppress big wide yawns during what I thought were some of my finest lectures.
You with the sparkling eyes that seemed to hang onto every word I said.
You, the angry intellectual who listened intensely so that you could catch me making the “fatal” statement that stamped me as too liberal or too conservative or insensitive to any one of a number of groups or ideas.
You, the anxious one, who truly believed that a point or two difference on a test could begin a chain of events that would lead to failure, shame, poverty and disaster.
You, the quiet one, who never said a word. When I see you on campus and say hello you quickly avert your eyes and walk by. I wonder most about you. I feel I’ve lost something important because I won’t get a chance to know you better.
You, the jock, who usually sat sprawled over two or more seats. I think you’re interested in what I’m saying, but I’m never quite sure because you seem to have so much invested in being “cool” it makes it difficult to know what’s going on with you at times.
You, the “startled” student who often looked like you thought you were in the wrong place; as though the usher is about ready to come by and throw you out of the class. I wish you didn’t look so lost.
You, the friendly one, who always stayed after class to ask a question or make a comment. Often you walk me back to my office and seem ever so interested in me and what I do….but many times once the semester class is over I never see you again.
You, the “back row gang.” You always have a special place in my thoughts and heart. I was a back row guy myself. I secretly suspect that, paradoxically, though you sit the furthest away from me you may actually be the closest.
I think about all of you now as I sit in this examination room filled with the thousands of students I have taught before. And I am surprised to feel so much emotion. I am startled to realize how much you all mean to me.
You have constantly given my life meaning and continuity for over three decades. This is something I took for granted until I was not able to be with you. Thank you for letting me back into your lives again.
Ever so often after you have finished my class and gone on to complete your various degrees one of you will return for a visit to tell me how you are doing and ask me about my life. The visit is usually a brief one and I suspect that you have no idea how much impact it has on me. Sometimes you let me meet your parents or your spouse or, if I’m really fortunate, your children. These post-class visits make me feel whole, alive and useful.
I was gone from you and I was afraid that I’d never make it back. But here I am once more. Isn’t that something? It makes me want to whoop and shout, but instead I just sit here quietly writing down my thoughts and feelings while you struggle over one of my “picky” exams.
Now I look up and there you all are. You are my students and I am your professor. We have a special relationship that exists in no other place in the world. Whenever you and I are together “college” exists; and when we are apart, it does not.
Over time I’ve learned that college is not the buildings, the administration or the board of trustees. College, Emory College, is us, you and me. And that is good, very good. Thank you for letting me be your professor . . . again.