Tuesday, August 22, 2006

I still never finished reading that assignment

Sunday afternoon I got an email from one of my favorite college professors. He is on his way to Palo Alto for the year and is stopping in Portland for a few days first. This does not make sense from a travel-perspective (he now teaches in the southeastern U.S.) but makes social sense (he used to teach in Portland and has friends here). He emailed me and Ellen asking if we wanted to get together while he was in town. Reading the email, and then making arrangements with him on the phone, I felt nervous. Like a 20 year old talking to her professor about her paper topic. Like the junior I was in his "Origins of Totalitarianism" class, admitting that I'd not gotten further than the first chapter of the Habermas reading he'd assigned.

Really, I took this guy's junior seminar class in 1992, and I'm still scarred by the experience of reading and re-reading a single page of that impenetrablee stuff. It doesn't help that when I (and the 14 other people in the class) fessed up that we'd found the assignment challenging, he thumped the table, practically yelling: "If you do not understand the reading, you do it five, Six, SEVEN times!" Fourteen years later Ellen and I still joke about that moment. And after a decade and a half I still remember the feeling of intense pride when I got back a "review" paper from him (his word for the two page analysis we had to write each week), seeing "this is a very acceptable review!" scrawled in the margin. Despite his hard-core academic side, this professor is also personally very warm and sweet. He cares about his students, even years after they have moved on to other lives.

So yeah, I feel nervous about seeing this professor. He wrote me a reference when I applied to graduate school, and we have been in touch over the years, but I still revert to self-conscious teen when I think about seeing him. About five years ago Ellen and I had dinner with him and his wife in Chicago. Ellen admitted to him that she'd had an academic crush on him when she was his student. She admitted this in front of his wife, who was charming and lovely and thought it was funny. It is kind of funny, because this guy, with his cute accent, recedingg hairline and stereotypically awkward professorial mannerisms, is no matinee idol. But he is intensely smart and intellectual.

Part of my insecurity is tied up in the fact that I did not become an academic. Ellen and I attended a school from which a high number of students go on to earn PhDs, and at which academic prowess is greatly prized. I have a professional master's degree and have made my career working for and on government programs. I know Ellen (a super smart woman with a graduate degree and professional career) has had some of the same thoughts and once in a while talks about pursuing a doctorate. I know that isn't the path I'm on, and I am mostly happy with that, but there is part of me that thinks about who I might have been and whether that road would have been a better one.

The funny thing is that when the professor shows up for lunch this week, we'll talk about his kids, and ours, about life in Portland and his town. About how you still can't get decent coffee where he lives and how excited he is to be going to Palo Alto for a year. And about kids. I know we'll talk about kids because I know how important his family is to him. When I found his academic web site a few years ago, I saw his photo at the top. The picture he'd chosen? One of him crouched next to his daughter, smiling broadly.

So yeah, I worry about what this professor will think of my life choices, but only a little. As long as I can remember that I am happy with my life, with the choices I have made, it is easier not to worry that someone else will judge me for making those choices. My professor may haved hoped that Ellen and I would become academics, arguing about history, philosophy and political science. But that isn't the life for everyone, something most academics recognize even as they choose it for themselves. It also helps to remember that the judgment is something I am doing to myself, rather than something coming from him. Even more, I am excited for him to meet Ada, knowing that when he meets her he will love her. How can he not? When my professor meets Ada and sees her many charms, he will laugh and smile and coo. He might even read her a book. And if she does not like it the first time, he'll read it five, Six, SEVEN times!


  1. This is a wonderful post.

    You never know about the choices that you didn't make, but you can take great pride in the ones that you did.

  2. FWIW, my parents are academics and consistently urged me and my siblings not to be the same! (None of us are.)

    It's wonderful that he keeps up with his students, though, and that you were influenced by him enough to want to impress him to this day.