There are only a few teachers that have left a deep impression on me. There was Dr. Hsu, my piano professor. Dr. Talbot, my Philosophy 101 professor (which was also the class I met Rachel in.) And there was Jack.
He insisted that we call him Jack, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. It seemed irreverent. To me, it implied that we were old chums, yet he seemed so far above me. He was a mathematical genius, and in his presence, I was mentally undone. Like a child, tinkering with my abacus.
When he taught, the room was silent. Attentive as an army rank before their Captain. Even the most apathetic student sat bolt upright with pencil in hand and beads of sweat on his brow.
Jack treated all of us equally and gave none an unfair advantage. He told us upfront, “You will have to work hard in this class. If you at least show you’ve tried, I’ll give you a C. That means you have to show up. This is not a class you can skip. If you skip, that shows me you don’t care.” His words were firm, yet calm and even. He’d pause, placing his left thumb, index, and middle fingers on his forehead. Sometimes he’d pause so long you’d think he’d forgotten about us. He’d look each one of us in the eye, and we’d shudder, or look away. Then, just as calmly, he’d continue. “And if you don’t care, I’ll fail your ass.” And we knew he was serious.
As much as I respected him as a teacher, I could not understand his character. Jack was Irish Catholic, and had been an orphan. Once in awhile he’d tell us stories from his impoverished childhood. And when he would get going, his stream of swear words would flow like milk in Spring. Most people I knew at the time over-used or misused swear words. But not Jack. Each one seemed so appropriately placed, so tastefully used. Adding to the effect of his story, rather than diminishing it.
* * * * *
Jack told us he was a Christian. Occasionally he’d even end his lectures with, “A wise man once said…” and quote the words of Jesus.
This bothered me. How can this man, who claims to be a Christian, use curse words like he does? He is misrepresenting the faith!
It was my last semester. My last course with Jack. I was sad it would all be over soon. He had stretched and challenged me. But this one character flaw (or what I supposed to be one) still bothered me.
So, one afternoon, during his office hours (I had never gone before), I showed up with some questions about the homework. (My cover-up for my real agenda.) We went over the assignment, then I had a choice to leave or bring up my concerns.
I didn’t have the audacity to call him out directly over his use of language. So I proceeded in a roundabout way, asking him about his faith, saying I was curious to know more. How did it come about? What led him to it as a child?
I don’t remember all the details of his story, but I do remember how humbled I was. Here, I had been judging him for several years, and in the course of ten minutes I learned what a truly difficult childhood he had, and yet, how in spite of it all, God provided for him every step of the way. He had always seemed so tough and hard in class. But by the end of his story, he was crying, grateful for what Jesus had done for him. More grateful than I had ever been for the same gift.