This column is dedicated to all the Chippewa Valley’s graduating high school seniors. Congratulations and best of luck.
My favorite college professor was Rebecca Walkowitz, and I became her student in my junior year at UW-Madison. Seems strange to think about it now, but she was just nine years older than me (29 to my 20) and filled with the kind of magnetic energy and charisma many great teachers possess. I’ve always been eager to please my teachers, but I can’t remember another instructor that I admired so very much and when I tell you that I still think about her almost every week of my life, it is the truth.
At about the same time I met Professor Walkowitz, my father suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Because my parents were separated, I became my dad’s legal guardian, a responsibility I carry to this day. While my classmates were busy attending Badger football games or keg parties, I held down a part-time job, and argued with nursing homes about my dad’s care. At times, I felt bitter, angry, cheated. I don’t know how to better explain my inner frustration except to say that I became a sort of caricature of myself, an exaggerated version of a young, ornery, headstrong northwood lumberjack. I resented my circumstances, the work I was doing, my obligations. Looking back at myself from the vantage of about 20 years, I was no one you wanted to pick a fight with or talk to at a party. I was a damn stick in the mud.
One day I was sitting in Professor Walkowitz’ office, and if I remember correctly, she asked me what I wanted to do with my life. This was not long after 9/11, and there was a part of me that wanted to volunteer for the military. Or maybe, retreat up to some family land in northern Michigan and, I don’t know, cut firewood, or stare intently into the flames of a wood stove. I’m sure I was spouting some anti-intellectual garbage, trying to somehow display how macho and self-assured I was. Basically, I was waving a white flag on my college career. Though it now sounds crazy, I was contemplating the notion of giving up the path I’d chosen — to study literature.
At some point, Professor Walkowitz sighed, and — this I will never forget — she said, “Nick, what if we all stayed the same person we were at 20? Or 18? What if we never matured beyond what we had learned in high school? What if we never traveled anywhere? How would that be commendable? What would the world be like?”
If you are a thoughtful person, a sensitive person, there are moments in your life, when, if you are listening, someone will challenge you in just such a way that they may as well have flicked you in the forehead with a finger. Or punched you square in the nose. That was what I felt. What if I never changed? What if I was inflexible? Where was the virtue in being so stubborn, so obtuse? And — didn’t I want to learn more? Isn’t that the point of this, my life? All our lives?
When we think of education, it is easy to immediately conjure classrooms, desks, and increasingly and unfortunately — tests. But the lessons I return to on a daily basis, the cornerstones of who I am as a human, those moments of enlightenment or regret, empathy or understanding, most of those lessons were derived outside of the classroom, in quiet offices, over beers, in fishing boats or on long walks.
The miraculous thing about being, say, 18 and a graduating high school senior is that if you understand that there is strength in learning, in flexibility, in openness — then the world will present itself to you, the world will become your classroom and teacher.
I am hopeful that this quarantine and this virus we are all trying to come to terms with is an opportunity to reflect on what lessons are important, on what voices we listen to, what work we believe is good, valuable and virtuous. Without much forethought, I have spent more than a few days in the past month planting trees. And during that silent work, when it is just me, a shovel and a tree so small it almost resembles a twig, I have reflected on the why of my labor. Why am I doing this when I might be doing that? My answer is that even if I were to die tomorrow, planting a burr oak tree today would always be the right thing to do. It would always make the Earth a better place to live, a cleaner, cooler, more beautiful place.
Whenever I can, I share my anecdote about Professor Walkowitz because it informs not only who I am, but the way I wish the world would or could be. I wish that we all took a moment from time to time to assess if we are still teachable, if we are still learning and if what we assume we know of the world is true. I wish every person had a Professor Walkowitz in their life, pushing them, agitating them, inspiring them.
I think of who I was at 16, 18, 21 years of age, and I do not feel nostalgic for that person. But I do feel inspired by all the women and men in my life who at 60, 70, 80 years old, still treat the world like a university, still treat their fellow humans, each one, like professors, no human underestimated. Those women and men who still treat every day like a new book to be read.
I don’t mean to be a buzzkill to a new graduate. On the contrary, after this most strange spring, when so many experiences, so many goodbyes, so many parties, so many celebrations have been stolen, I want to emphatically say that everything is ahead, and it is all somehow different than you think in the most beautiful and unexpected of ways. So please — don’t ever stop being a student.