Ode to History: The Retirement of My Mentor

When I registered for my first history class in college, a friend said, “Oh. You have him? Change that. He is the hardest professor on campus.” I didn’t. This professor (whom I shall call Dr. History) taught most of the courses I would need in my major and I was excited to take my first European history class – I’d only ever had US History. Turned out to be a decision that shaped my entire life in the best possible way.

I barely passed that class. Seems funny to me now that I almost didn’t pass that first class with him because I took so many with him. The first class though was so different from anything I had ever taken that the shock of it kept me from opening up to the experience.

Dr. History is old school. His style is entirely lecture but with a dash of theatrics. On occasion he would unroll his antique maps and point out vague areas on faded maps that we were somehow supposed to know. He instructed us to print his lecture notes and follow him along for when he read from them. He would read a few lines then fill in the missing information with his stories.

But no other teacher had taught me like this. He expected us to try and to listen and to ask questions and to understand the complexity of his answers. He often spoke in code (or at least it seemed that way) and there were many times I just pretended to understand what he was saying.

In the second attempt (new class) I asked him if I could submit my freshmen term paper I wrote for another class. I had purposefully chosen a topic from the history class I was taking with him in the hopes that he would accept that as extra credit. He did. He gave me a huge grade boost. But even without the grade boost I had done better in this class. The paper I had written definitely helped but I began to learn his system.

Read the notes, lecture the important stuff, point to the same vague stuff on a large map, repeat. The texts he had assigned were what he based his notes and his vast knowledge of history he lectured to fill in the gaps. Not surprisingly I had figured out how to follow the lecture notes and his stories began to make sense.

The third class I took was a real winner. I still submitted an extra credit research paper but I barely needed it. I had earned a B- and he gave me a B. I gladly took it but was confident I could handle more of his classes. It wasn’t long after that when I had dared to take an upper level class with him. No more extra credit research papers – they were now mandatory and a major part of the grade. But I had already done a few for him.

Sure, I may have chosen topics that he didn’t like because he thought I could do more but what 19/20-year-old doesn’t take the easy route sometimes? (I know, many don’t, but many do – I was social. What can I say?) However, I still wrote some good ones. He told me he knew my work would at least make him read it implying that when they were bad he just assigned a bad grade and he would move on. He often talked about needing a heavy drink while grading research papers. He joked he read mine before the alcohol flowed.

It was somewhere in my fifth or sixth class with him when he cornered me in the stairwell on our way to class one day and told me to get my shit together. He told me I was capable of doing higher level work than I had been producing and that skipping classes was getting me no where.

Our relationship had become a little bit personal. I knew things about his family and vice versa. He felt comfortable enough to complain about things at the university and about the student body. We’d talk about his travels and experiences and about history. He counseled me to pick my mate well and tried to cheer me up when he noticed I began to suffer with anxiety and depression.

When I graduated I wrote him emails for a while but of course, spam filters kept me out long enough that I figured he wouldn’t remember me. But he gave a lecture at the end of every year. I continued to attend those for two years after I graduated. I only stopped for a years when I moved to another state but immediately began going again when I moved back.

The first year I went back to a lecture was seven years ago. I was heavily pregnant and uncomfortable but needed to hear the man lecture.

He still had it. I still remembered his style, his cadence. It reminded me of when I was younger and had taken him for granted. It made me want to continue my personal journey with history (I had taught history for a few years but had “retired” due to pregnancy).

Two years later I returned to his lecture and reintroduced myself. He said, “I remember. I mean, not your name but I remember you face.” With that, when we saw each other once a year at his history lecture we seemed to pick back up where we left off. Each year refamiliarizing ourselves with our mutual passion for history and a certain comfort for being in each others lives to some degree for so many years.

The lecture this year was his 43rd and he repeated his favorite lecture, The Bombing of Dresden. It moved him as someone who focused on German history and the multitude of emotional layers is something I know he likes. Hate the Nazi’s but feel horrible for the victims of the bombing. Feel horrible for the Holocaust but can’t help but feel it was wrong to target the civilians of the city. This is one of the main reasons I love history too.

This lecture is also his last. Dr. History is retiring after 50 years of teaching and I feel many emotions. Happiness for the closing of the very long chapter. Happiness for the new chapter. Anger that I wasn’t part of more. Anger that there will be no more. Sadness that I have no more lectures to attend. Sadness that I may never see him again. Joy in that I was able to experience him. Joy in that so many others enjoyed him and understood him.

The man has shaped my entire adult life. I always kept his style in mind when I was training to become a teacher and I used his map skills and theatrics when I became a teachers. When I write history I think about whether or not he would like or hate a subject I am working on. I know he would be proud of my resources I sell and annoyed by them at the same time. I know he would be proud of my history blog and annoyed by it because it isn’t serious enough.

I called my little company and blog Integrated Social Studies for him because of the way he taught. So many times he would talk about other subjects to help explain a historical fact. I was amazed at his knowledge of botany (until I learned it was his hobby), biology, engineering, and other sciences and how he was able to use his knowledge to expand history. Things made more sense because he knew so much about things.

In my real life my friends often say I am a know-it-all but that is because he made me want to know a lot to enhance my experience with history. When I taught one of my proudest moments was when a student asked me, “How do you know all this?” after I finished explaining an element of art and engineering when we were discussing the Renaissance.

The answer is because of him. My mentor. My friend.


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