The Encounter: Why We Need Great Teachers

A hugely important person in my life died this week. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what a professor can mean to a student — throughout life.

Real education just isn’t going to happen from a computer on the kitchen table, or from massive lecture halls. Real education takes space and time where the professor and the student can pour over great material, together.

That’s education. It’s a mystery at times. It is profoundly human. It is life-shaping. If it is done right, it is the place where world change begins.

My teacher’s name was Dr. Simpson. Dr. Simpson contracted polio when he was a child, losing the bulk and use of one of his legs. Because he was forced to use crutches all of his life, his shoulders and arms were massive. He was a big man, in so many ways.

We often stood in fear, as he swung through one of his strides, that he would lose his balance and fall. But never did we imagine he would lose his steady, penetrating insight into life and living. His wisdom was huge and sweeping, breathtaking.

Though he focused with a specialist’s intensity on literature and the Scriptures and history and culture, he taught me to be a generalist. He would always subtly and suddenly leap from the particulars to talk about big things, things that matter.

He taught me to love good and nuanced language. He taught me that literature will open wide big doors toward understanding. He taught me to revel in the complexity and beauty of texts.

He always anchored his thinking in metaphors. On the day he died, I counted probably ten metaphors I could remember from speeches he had given thirty years ago. I’ve tried to shape the speeches I give around metaphors (not always successfully); I’ve tried to shape my life and my leadership around metaphors. I learned this from my teacher.

His reach of thinking and reading and curiosity was expansive. He treated all kinds of books and texts with love and respect and endless fascination. When it comes to learning and exploration, he had no fear.

He told a story one time about a young boy in the men’s restroom in McDonald’s in Nogales, Arizona. There in the restroom, this little guy noticed that Dr. Simpson was on crutches and asked him about his leg: “what happened?” Dr. Simpson patiently explained, and the boy left the restroom.

Suddenly, in a moment of spontaneous compassion, the little guy burst back into the restroom — returning precisely so he could swing the door wide open to assist Dr. Simpson. “In that very moment,” Dr. Simpson said, “the glory of the Lord appeared, right there in that restroom, in Nogales, Arizona.”

Dr. Simpson knew that God could shine out of the ordinary at any moment. He knew, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out like the shining from shook foil,” often when we least expect it. And so we better stay attentive and expectant. That’s what I learned from my teacher, Dr. Simpson.

I thank God for this powerful teacher in my life. In whatever ways we must change education in the future, adjusting our economic models, we cannot lose sight of this special, sometimes mysterious, encounter between the professor and the student.