Never Switzerland

I double checked the room number and slipped into the front row. The professor nodded her head and began writing on the chalkboard. Others drifted in, some looking sleepy, others with damp hair and morning eyes. It was my very first college class.

She was tall and slender, tastefully dressed in a gray business suit and heels. I studied her furrowed brow as her manicured nails held the chalk firmly, porcelain skin contrasting with both dark hair and lipstick. She glanced at the clock, and at precisely 8:00am began speaking.

She was strict; punctuality was definitely the politeness of princes in her rulebook. We were allowed one pass for tardiness and after that momentary grace we would receive grade-dropping consequences. To prove her point, she called out a few stragglers who were minutes late. They had received their only pass, and on Day One.

I am glad to meet each of you. Please remember this is not high school anymore. You are big people, and you chose to take this morning class. I will be treating you like the adults that you are.

Her heels clicked as she moved up and down the aisles, handing out a stapled packet, carefully addressing each line item on the syllabus. I was stunned to learn that she would not remind us of assignment due-dates. We had been informed, and it was our job to keep track of papers and word counts and turn them in accordingly.

I paid attention, suddenly feeling the true weight of academic adulthood. I was utterly overwhelmed as I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder at the end of class.

Later that evening, while studying at the library, I pulled out my day planner and penciled in every assignment from each of my professors. English assignments filled many pages. How would I slog through all of this homework?

Yet as the weeks unfolded, I found myself enjoying that 8am class. Other students would nod off, but this Professor, although stern, held my attention. Incredibly bright, she seldom smiled, systematically teaching with great care and detail. I found myself analyzing her directives on thesis writing, story telling, and character development. I was an English writing major, and this was a far weightier cup than high school composition. A cup that I most definitely wanted to drink.

She lectured upon the use of flat versus round characters in literary works. Flat characters are served up on a platter for a distinct one-dimensional role: this one stands for evil, that one represents jealousy. Flat characters are never fully formed she said, they only serve a singular purpose in a narrative.

Round characters have both flaws and virtues: he might commit murder, but he also might truly love his mother and was actually protecting her when he pulled that trigger on an abuser; she might be jealous for the entirety of the book, but the author also formed her by showing her tender love and devotion for her children. Round characters develop and pull the reader in because they are credible.

Our professor faithfully prodded us along while simultaneously corralling us in with structured writing boundaries; awakening us to the wonders of good literature.

Chew up the meat and spit out the bones. Easy, happy stories are not the best. Take a strong position and write, people. Work the mind that God has given you. Think circumspectly; critically. Words lead people to places, and you cannot remain neutral and be effective. You are not Switzerland.

I mused upon these ideas; losing myself in thought. Every red mark on my returned papers was an opportunity to grow and sharpen my skills. To say I respected her comments is an understatement. Her suggestions were spot on.

One day, as heavy snow fell, my friend and I came into class, warming our freezing hands and laughing. We noticed that our professor was actually smiling. She greeted us by name; the usual sense of formality gone. Her cheeks were slightly pink.

Are you ready for your finals, girls? She tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear, and something flashed. A magnificent diamond.

Your ring! my friend said. Are you engaged?

She nodded. I realized how we knew nothing of this glowing woman, other than her professorship. She looked softened; happy.

By the time I was a pupil under her again, three years had elapsed and I was a senior, with an engagement ring of my own. She was now married with a baby boy, and I smiled to see those same manicured hands gripping the chalk as I stepped into class. She smiled, remaining elusive, yet excited to be teaching this difficult English class with students who wanted to take notes and internalize her lectures. She was no longer so slim; motherhood had rounded her in all of the right ways, and although her personality was intact, she had somehow grown more comfortable with herself.

Still impeccably dressed, there were days she blew into the classroom just on time, heels clicking. The babysitter was sick, she offered, although no one minded. Her lectures were our feast.

At the end of my senior year, she hosted a grand party for the English Honors society, serving up the best German chocolate brownies. We had no idea that she delighted in baking, and when I asked her if she could share the recipe, she remembered and handed it to me before the next class. I have it still.

We also met her husband, thus observing another dimension to our serious professor. He was as casual and comfortable and light-hearted as she was formal. He held her hand and gently kissed her cheek, cheerfully collecting and tossing the paper plates into a trash bag as we were leaving. It was lovely.

***

Years later, when I had little boys beside me and a baby on my hip, I, too, baked those German brownies, pretending the wooden spoon was our microphone. I held the recipe card and smiled, remembering.

I finally had words for what I had seen: my favorite professor had become a rounded character during those years. Such personality: bright, determined, and thoughtful, with strong opinions, yet softened by a devoted husband and darling baby. Becoming precisely who God created her to be; and never Switzerland.

8 thoughts on “Never Switzerland

  1. Kristin, I was so moved by this story. It made me think of my own professors from days so long ago, their very real lives of which we students rarely gained a glimpse. Thank you for that gift.

    Like

  2. Reminds me of my professor with whom I ended up alone in the elevator going to class. In the awkward elevator silence I commented I had been afraid I would be late to class. The elevator doors opened and I followed him to the classroom door. At the door he stepped aside and motioned me in saying that if I entered before him, I wouldn’t be late.
    I enjoyed your story.

    Like

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