More than occasionally I’m reminded of the reversal of roles as I get older. None is more apparent than that of teacher/student.
I taught journalism for almost a dozen years at the University of St. Thomas, and now I’m the one learning lessons — about how to live this life — from those who once sat in my classroom.
Out of the blue
The most recent came in a letter. The return address was unfamiliar, but it was handwritten and so was my name and address. I wasn’t the “occupant,” nor was I being solicited for a contribution that would be matched 3-to-1 by an anonymous donor.
So I opened the envelope and took out a one-page letter, also handwritten:
“Nim: I hope this letter finds you well. I’m writing to simply say, ‘Thank you.’ It has been 25 years since I had the privilege of being a pure pain in the ass for you. I remember challenging many of the assertions you offered and thinking I had all the answers. Your patience, insight, commitment and storytelling changed my world. I learned to apply a journalistic filter to every issue.”
My first thought was “Are you sure it’s me you’re thinking of?”
But I remembered Terri Moore (then Teuber) and she was careful and skeptical.
After graduation, she kicked off a stunning career with 10 years as a TV news reporter and 10 years as communications director for a Nebraska governor turned U.S. senator turned secretary of agriculture, plus two years in the White House as a deputy press secretary for policy and planning in the Bush administration.
So I took the compliment and returned it with equal sincerity and clarity — in a handwritten letter:
I want to tell you what a great gift your letter is. You were not a pain in the ass, but a shot in the arm. You made that class livelier every day. You read the book, kept up with the news and came with informed ideas. You were, in fact, a teacher’s best friend.
In addition to my letter, Terri wrote and sent 49 others.
“I’m turning 50 this year,” she said, “and decided to write to 50 people to mark the occasion.” What a generous, gracious thing to do, something I’ve never done and never thought about until I read her letter.
A gratitude practice
I can’t think of 50 people to write, but eight come to mind, including a group that meets weekly. They are teachers, mentors and sponsors. Most of them are dead, but a few are still very alive and quite able to read a letter of gratitude.
Steven Lybrand, who I believe is now a hotshot jury consultant on the West Coast, was a sociology professor at St. Thomas, where I had a lowly B.S. degree among a cluster of Ph.D.s.
I suspected some of my colleagues thought of me as an ink-stained wretch, not quite worthy of academe.
But Lybrand gave me the benefit of the doubt and the two of us put together a documentary about the effects of poverty that ran during prime time on Twin Cities Public Television.
He later bought groceries, cut bureaucratic red tape and mopped floors for some of those we featured in the doc: Sometimes you ought to be more than a reporter — and be a helper. Meanwhile, the River Rats help me, one night a week, find comfort in the human condition.
This private group of 20 men and women, from age 30 to 80, have been walking with me on a path of sobriety toward compassion, humility, service and serenity. It’s basic training for what a good man is and what he does.
Maybe he starts with putting it in writing and mailing a letter.
Dave Nimmer lives in Woodbury. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.