by Rebekah Van Hansen
Fifteen years ago, while dealing with the heartbreak of my divorce, I called a professor to tell him I was quitting his class. Really, this would have led to my quitting graduate school altogether. I didn’t want to talk about my reasons, and what I saw as my “weakness” in not being able to finish the class. Yet he talked me into coming into his office to talk the following day anyway.
I went cautiously, not sure of this learned man who was a bit intimidating in class. But because he called me in, I felt it necessary to explain why I would not finish the assignment. Without that assignment, I would ultimately fail his class — which had led me to believe I should just quit.
He listened to my sorrow around my recent separation, handed me his Kleenex box, and said little.
When I finished telling him why I had neither the energy nor the desire to continue down this path, he told me that he was willing to work within the timeframe that I needed to heal. He would allow me to turn in my assignments late, and even take his final the next term, as long as I would agree to “stick it out” and call upon him when I needed.
He believed I could take the “life lessons” from my divorce, and apply them to my degree. You see, I was working on getting my Masters in Social Work, and he didn’t want to see me quit on his watch.
This gift of understanding, this reprieve, came from a professor who, while in class, seemed rigid and unbending around his assignments.
I struggled through that semester, never again needing to call upon my professor, and finishing my course work. I even graduated with an MSW. The real lesson from my divorce for me came early, with the understanding heart and sympathy this professor extended to me when I was in deep pain. I really was almost too proud to call upon someone for the sympathy I so needed. He gave me an hour of attention that kept me on track.
It was such a simple thing, and indeed within the realm of his vocation, but it impacted me for years. Isn’t that often the case, that what we give so easily, is sometimes the most difficult for someone else to ask for?
I never thanked him, and can’t even now recall his name. But his kindness lives on, as I extend greater sympathy to those who seem afraid to ask, to those who need only a little bit of help to make a difference.