Day 54 – Love and learning

So this story ran in the New York Times in January: Students Learn From People They Love

I don’t believe it’s just coincidence that this story ran just two days after one of my favorite humans in the world (my mentor and former English Professor Dr. Mandana Nakhai) was honored for her service and her unparalleled dedication as an educator and administrator at Concordia College – New York. I like to think the universe has a way of connecting things like that.

I bookmarked this article. Printed it. And I’ve probably read it at least a half dozen times in the past month. I like the way it makes me think about all of the amazing teachers I’ve had in my life, the way it brings back the memories of what it felt like to sit in their classrooms.

The best teachers don’t charge ahead and clear the path for you, and they don’t take a seat on the sideline and lost sight of you when you stray. The best teachers are the ones who take the journey with you and walk the path alongside you. They are the ones who take the time to explain the unfamiliar road signs and delight in the fact that they get to continue learning something new along the way. And when you come upon a door that leads to a brand new opportunity, the best teachers will squeeze your hands and smile and remind you that you have everything you need to unlock the door and walk on through.

When I think back to all the moments and the choices and the people who got me where I am today, there is no denying that it was the emotional connection that really made all the difference. I couldn’t have learned unless I felt safe and supported in the classroom. I wouldn’t have gone onto college without the elementary and middle and high school teachers that went above and beyond just trying to teach me math equations or analyze the themes in Shakespeare’s plays. And I wouldn’t have graduated from college, gone onto get a Master’s, or pursued a career in higher education if it weren’t for the faculty and staff who invested in me, challenged me, and pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone that I sometimes have a hard time remembering what it feels like to be truly scared of anything.

And while I am so thankful for all the the things they taught me in the classroom, that’s really not even half of the story. I had teachers who helped me earn scholarships, who steered me toward opportunities to participate in prestigious writing programs, who helped me get published. I had teachers who helped me navigate volatile relationships, who pushed me get into therapy, who sat with me in the hospital until they knew that I was okay. I had teachers who helped me craft my first resume and cover letter, who invited me to dine in my very first Michelin-rated restaurant, who took me to my very first art museum and Broadway show. I had teachers who helped me piece together my first professional wardrobe and who (to this day) remain some of my greatest mentors and confidants and friends.

So, if you ask me what really makes the difference in a child’s education, you’re probably not going to hear me talk about the tests or the textbooks or the state-of-the-art facilities. Instead, I’m going to talk about the connections they can make with teachers, because from that love comes learning. And isn’t that really what it’s all about?

Day 45 – Glow Big Red

The University of Nebraska is celebrating its 150th birthday, and my building was looking mighty pretty when I was leaving campus tonight.

Go Big Red!

Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.

Day 2 – Letter to Dr. Nakhai

One down, fifty-one to go.

I decided to send the first letter to a woman who has been on my mind a lot lately because it’s been too long since I’ve seen her and I’ve been missing her like crazy. My college English professor, advisor, mentor, and friend–Dr. Mandana Nakhai.

Last May, I found out she was being honored for her long career as she prepared to take a short sabbatical. Upon her return, she would be diving into her next adventure as inaugural Thomas Green Chair Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Fellows Program. I wrote a little something in her honor. It certainly doesn’t express my deep admiration and respect of this incredible woman, but it’s something.

Enjoy.

I met Dr. Nakhai one cold day in February in the middle of Schoenfeld Gym. I was more than 1,500 miles from home and she was, by far, the most poised and elegant woman I’d ever met. She was dressed in a flawlessly tailored wine-colored suit, complete with a jewel-toned scarf, matching stiletto heels, and delicate gold brooch. She stood maybe 5-feet tall (even in heels), yet her regal presence filled every inch of that crowded room. 

From that very first moment, I was in awe of her. 

I’d spent weeks practicing a formal introduction. I wanted to make a good impression visiting the colleges on my short list. But Dr. Nakhai didn’t need the introduction. As soon as I said my name, she smiled and squeezed my hand and told me how much she’d enjoyed reading the portfolio I’d submitted. She fixed those warm brown eyes on mine and for the next ten minutes she made me feel like the most important person in the world.

Being a student in Dr. Nakhai’s classes always meant that you were going to spend the semester experiencing a healthy mix of excitement and fear. Her love of literature and writing is infectious, and the deep discussions of the significance of the canary in A Jury of Her Peers or the archetypal images in Huckleberry Finn set my mind ablaze. I’d find myself re-reading passages and scribbling notes in the margins of all my books as I eagerly awaited the next class session.

Until, inevitably, the semester would catch up with me, and I’d have one of those weeks where I spent too much time hanging out with friends in the Quad or playing video games and I’d sit in class silently praying that she wouldn’t call on me until I had a chance to at least skim through the assigned reading or maybe piggyback off someone else’s answers to cover the fact that I was ridiculously ill-prepared.

Some weeks I wasn’t the only culprit, but there’s no fooling Mandana Nakhai. Not even five minutes into class and she would notice that the pauses were too lengthy and the answers too vague and her voice would ratchet up an octave as she attempted to jar the room full of rapt undergraduates from our panic-stricken stupor. 

“Claaaaaaas! Are you awake?! Are you alive?! Did you just eat lunch?! Open your Harbraaaace!”

I visited Dr. Nakhai’s office hours like it was my job—sometimes with questions, sometimes carrying the umpteenth draft of a paper I wanted to get more feedback on, sometimes to nag her about spending far too many hours in her office trying like hell to cultivate the young minds in her care. 

But mostly, I just wanted more time. 

I loved the melodic lilt of her voice, the way her accent rolled words exotically off her tongue. I loved circling back on interrupted class discussions and hearing her thoughts on everything from feminist theory and fashion to politics and pop culture. I loved listening to her stories, how she once sewed her sleeping nanny’s nightgown to the bedsheets as a joke and how she felt the day she moved across the ocean to her new home. 

I even loved it when she called me on my bullshit, and insisted I own up to my mistakes.

If she is guilty of anything in this life, it’s that she cares too much and gives everything she has without asking for a whole lot in return.

It’s not uncommon to catch her in her office at odd hours, and I made a habit of knocking on her door or dialing her extension from the nearest callbox whenever I saw her office light burning far too late in the evening. I learned that first summer I spent on campus that popsicles are one of the more effective ways to lure her out for a short break and a breath of fresh air. Somehow she can’t seem to ignore the pleas of a persistent college student standing outside her window hollering at her to “Hurry please and get out here before these things melt!”

Dr. Nakhai made education her life and invested the last 31 years at Concordia because she loves learning and she loves students (even the troublemakers like me). She knows that knowledge is one of the greatest gifts we can give, both to ourselves and to others. And even if she always seems to set the bar so high that you’ll be running and jumping and stretching yourself farther than you ever dreamed you could to reach it, you can be sure she’ll be standing there in the front row cheering the loudest when you finally catch hold and pull yourself up.

She’s made of silk and fire and diamonds and steel. And she’s got the sort of quiet strength and unyielding tenacity that can move mountains, if she truly believes they’re worth moving.

I’m a better scholar because she is my teacher, and I’m a better person because she is my friend. I wouldn’t be where I am—I wouldn’t be here at all—without her.

And wherever this new adventure leads, I have no doubts that it will be absolutely fabulous.

Space

Cadence’s class recently began studying the sky. She comes home each day talking about the stars and the planets fascinated, like her Daddy and me, by the vastness of all the space stretching out from our little ol’ planet Earth. Stevie downloaded the Star Walk 2 app, which helps Cadence get an up close and personal look at every star and planet floating around out there. We’ve taken to looking at it nightly. We read interesting little facts about the planets and study maps of the different constellations. Cadence has been diligent about coloring in her “moon tickets” as she tracks the waxing and waning pattern of the moon each night before she goes to bed.

Funny how a 5-year-old can ignite your interest in space again, just when you’ve gotten to the point where you’re too busy with all of your adult responsibilities to really even notice it anymore.

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Project Life 365 – Day 64 – Private

Now that Cadence and I are back from Poppa Duane’s 80th birthday in Denver where we partied, learned to play Farkle, got snowed in, and picked up a icky stomach bug (well, Cadence did, I just suffered sleep-deprivation as a result of her vomiting), it’s time to catch up on my Project Life 365. So here begins the outtakes from the past week and a half of chaos…

When Steven gets in study mode, all he needs is some tunes, a Cadbury Egg, and a little privacy…

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