Brian Coatney continues our series on teachers who made a difference.

B picI remember sitting in the Purple Cat Café five years ago having coffee with Dr. Ken Casey, and we were talking about how classes were going. Naturally we want students to absorb and remember far more than actually they’re likely to in the long haul. I said to Ken, “My high school Latin teacher told us that students forget 90% of what is learned.” Ken quickly said, “Yes, but they go away changed.” There was a world of wisdom in Ken’s reply.

As evidence, I remember one of my undergraduate literature courses on Samuel Johnson, his biographer Boswell, and the hilarious satirist Johnathan Swift—along with the likes of other 17th and 18th century British writers. I laughed my head off and delighted to no end at Boswell’s endless descriptions of the wit and eccentricities of the inimitable Dr. Johnson.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson commissioned for He...

Class on these writers was the traditional lecture format, and my professor (I’ve long forgotten his name) was a middle aged, proper male who wore light colored suits like gray or brown or olive— conservative looking, somewhat drab and unexciting attire to a nineteen-year-old student. But make no mistake—this lecturer had a penetrating and very dry sense of humor, and the class was fun, even if it was after lunch, and the drowsies were tempting at times.

I couldn’t get too tempted though because I chose a seat right to the front right corner of his desk, and I sat only a few feet from his lectern. His face was a bit blunt in features, not quite chiseled—all in all very distinguished, and I’m sure he could have been younger than he appeared to a teenage student, because mid 40s now looks incredibly youthful to a guy like me who will turn 64 this year.

To continue, I arrived one day, having finished my tall soda pop but still thirsty enough to want to crunch the ice as we went along with class, so every couple of minutes I tipped the standard fast food cup to my mouth, took in some of the delicious Sprite flavored crushed ice—watery, but still enjoyable—and began to break the crushed ice down even more between my molars. I found this ritualistic in a pleasing way as well as hydrating on a warm day.

A Cold Straw on a Warm Day

A Cold Straw on a Warm Day (Photo credit: pigpogm)

But after a few crunches, I had not picked up on the subtle wincing and distressing cues of my professor; so, suddenly his crisp, booming voice, like surround-sound, hit my ears with, “Would you please put a silencer on that ice!”

I sat mortified, thinking, “I have an A going in this class, and I’ve just brought upon myself the wrath of this fine man in a course I am very much enjoying.” I never touched that cup again until class was dismissed. The cup was tall and still had a fair amount of ice in it, and as the lecture continued, drops of condensation accumulated on the outside of the cup and then ran onto the desk and pooled, but I never touched the cup and only made discreet gestures to keep the drips away from my spiral notebook, in which I took copious notes and paid the strictest and most respectful attention the rest of the way that day and throughout the course.

I prayed that he did not know my name. I hoped he had other things on his mind other than remembering a teenager who irritated him badly by munching crushed ice while he was taking us through great lines in great chapters in great books.

Wide-Eyed Not Surprise

Wide-Eyed Not Surprise (Photo credit: pasadenaviews)

Big drops of sweat accumulated on me as I waited for my grade at the end of the term, and my work was good but by no means that good so as to think an A automatic. In those days, an envelope came in the mail a couple of weeks after a term, and one opened it to see how the semester went. Fortunately, I didn’t crunch my way out of the hoped for grade, plus I learned a lot, which of course I have forgotten as part of the 90%. But I did go away changed.

pleasureteam note: Do you recall an episode that caused you to “go away changed”? We would love to have more contributors to our series on teachers who made a difference!

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