It is the first day of classes, and, as is typical, my mind is racing with thoughts and ideas about the new semester. Excitement about getting to know new groups of students. Trepidation about my syllabi and whether the courses I’ve designed are going to engage our classroom communities. Administrative woes over software glitches, enrollment, staffing, scheduling, and rooms with no technology. The list is somewhat exhausting at times.
Today, however, feels different. Today amidst all of these thoughts, I keep coming back to my college days and to my friend and mentor, Jim Poole.
When I walked onto the campus of my conservative, private, liberal arts college at the age of seventeen, I was an idiot. A young student who could have been categorized both as smart but also as a basic writer. A student whose family income put us squarely in a working class income bracket but whose parents both had graduate degrees. A student who wanted to be something more but who kept going back to what felt comfortable. I was full of bravado, full of myself, and scared to death.
There were three people who influenced my life’s direction significantly during those four years at the University of Mobile. One was Dr. Francis Garner, a white-haired, current traditional, English professor who would never put up with my shit and forced me to be a better student. There was Dr. John Buaas, my American literature professor who inspired me and who was the first person to ever tell me that I could be successful in English studies. And there was Dr. Jim Poole, our campus activities director who, and I am not exaggerating when I say this, helped me find myself.
Jim was the person we all loved. The jocks. The international students. The wannabe and wouldbe pastors. The rebels. Those on the fringes. And those who were finding their way. Jim had space in his heart for all of us.
Jim saw in me the potential to lead. He saw through my bravado. He recognized my seeming need for safety and my fear of uncertainty. And he challenged me to want better for myself. It is likely Jim remembers little of some of our conversations. But I remember them, and I recognize them as turning points for a much younger me. When I got married while still in graduate school, Jim is the person who prayed for me and Chris and who watched my father walk me down the aisle and then changed places with my father so that my daddy could perform the actual ceremony. And Jim is the person who for years contacted me on my anniversary to tell me he continued to pray for us on that day every year. He is the man who knew my family was dealing with a rare chronic disease and a child who had to see a doctor at Yale constantly and brought humor and love to the situation insisting that she needed Belmont sweatshirts and not Yale sweatshirts if I was going to put pictures of her all over social media.
I learned this week that Jim has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I learned he intends to fight (although I was speaking with one of my closest friends, and she and I agreed that “fighting” is a crappy metaphor for times like these). And I watched him respond to every person who has posted on Facebook and show the same strength and love that he always shows. Always giving. This is Jim.
It occurred to me as I pondered Jim’s situation this morning on this first day of classes, and as I prayed for Jim and for his family, that those of us in education often underestimate the role we play in the lives of students we encounter on a daily basis. These years are so formative, and whether we encounter one student a day or hundreds, we affect their life paths, their appreciation or disdain for education, and their belief (or not) in themselves.
So, to my friends all over the world who are in education, whether in the classroom or not, remember that your response to the student in the hallway matters.
To Jim, I love you, and I am so thankful for the time you gave to every student you encountered and for the time you continue to give. It mattered, and it continues to matter. Thank you for caring for me when I was young and stupid. And thank you for caring for me now that I am old and still stupid on occasions. And apologies for waiting until now to say thank you. What a wonderful impression you’ve made on those of us who love you, and what a wonderful impression I know you are continuing to make. We are so blessed that you are part of our lives, those of us near and those of us far away.
Prayers for strength, wisdom, and peace, my friend. And thank you for praying the same prayer for me for over two decades.
Here's to a good first day for all of us.