I just spent a wonderful afternoon with a former teacher, I don’t dare call her my “old” teacher (though 78, she’s hardly what I would call old–let’s face it, there are young old people and old old people). Regardless whether she is old or young or somewhere in-between, we reminisced about those mostly halcyon undergraduate college years I spent at a small liberal arts university in Minnesota. I worked for her as a writing lab tutor for three years, and I was the first student she hired who was a sophomore. Before that they had all been juniors and seniors, so I felt privileged to work under her tutelage for a full three years.

One time a tutor once asked her, our fearless Writing Lab Director, how she decided who to hire to work for her, and she answered, “I look for the light behind their eyes.”

Now obviously our parents have a great impact on who we are and who we become, and their importance can’t be underestimated, but I would state categorically, without reservation that it is teachers and mentors like her who do so much to put the light in our eyes in the first place. I was the first person who had ever come out to her as a gay man, and she taught me that it is okay to be who I am, that God doesn’t make mistakes (this was before that catchphrase was in vogue). Since then quite a few other young men have told her that they are gay, and she is always accepting. I guess people have a way of sensing when someone has a gentle, kind spirit. More than just a kind spirit, though, she is a guiding spirit, and a guiding force in so many young people’s lives.

Just because I was struggling with issues of sexual identity, however, didn’t excuse me from educational obligations, and I knew better than to test her, much less turn in a late paper! She taught me deadlines and responsibilities. She also taught me how to lead others. She may as well have invented the term, “kill ’em with kindness.”

She instilled in her tutors that they must be respectful of others’ work, but also work to help students discover ways to improve their own papers rather than having us simply correct their mistakes. She suggested (early and often) that we tutors pick out the more glaring shortcomings in the student papers before us, and engage in what she termed, Socratic Questioning. This meant we would ask “leading questions,” questions designed of course to get a student to think about her paper critically, but also to guide her in a specific direction. We might have had an agenda, but we needed to disguise it. In doing this, we ourselves learned to write as we taught others how to write. I’ve heard the best way to learn something is to teach it to others, and that is what we did.

Before I had her as my Writing Lab Director, I had her as a teacher for my Honors’ Symposium. I think, in fact, she would prefer the term teacher over professor. And as our teacher, she taught us what the other great teachers who had come before her had taught the generations, with special emphasis on Aristotle and Ethics. At St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, we learned to pick apart and consider what is the nature and origin of good and evil, what makes an ethical man, and what makes an opportunist. She never had a specifically Catholic agenda; she merely wanted us to make a decision, in a million little ways, to do our best to live a good life.

There’s a saying in Judaism that you are only truly dead when no one longer remembers you, and in this respect, certainly, Betty will live on for generations. Her impact has been that profound, and her lessons will most certainly be taught by her students to their friends, co-workers, children, and extended family, both orally and through example. The best way to live a good life is by example, and Betty, with quite grace, showed me “the good life.”

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