On a brilliant November day, the students talked me into teaching outside. So we were at an outdoor amphitheater on the Danube when I broke into the story of the professor on my Christmas card list. In college, I spent summers in a small town in Colorado working as a waitress at a sportsbar and restaurant. Waiting tables is good penance and a particular sort of training to endure life’s haters.
A couple came in one day and we chitchatted while the wife mulled the beer list. The man asked what I was studying, what I wanted to do. He caught me in a hopeful spirit. I’d just taken a literature course that made me have faith in reading, in something I’d loved since childhood. I said I might like to be an English professor one day. His wife gazed away and the man scoffed. He was himself an English professor at a nearby university and when they had one vacancy that year, they received over 200 applications. “So perhaps,” he recommended, “you should consider those odds.”
The whole experience was just as vivid when I disclosed the story to my students. I fumed that I wanted to send him a Christmas card, a reminder of what he’d said. That prof went about eating his meal while my 19-year-old self had to fight to keep from crying. I’d never had a stranger leave me so deflated, so angry.
As I admitted my anger in the tale, I dropped my copy of “Microserfs,” the book I’d assigned. It fell from my hands and collapsed onto the sidewalk below me. My student Miloš raised his hand quickly. Miloš: charming and shy, kind and distracted, but this story had his attention. I reached down to recover the book as in his Serbian-toned English he said, “Hey, in my country, if someone is speaking and they drop something, or there’s a crash or a loud noise–that means it’s true. It’s really true.”
A few other students had similar traditions and they nodded as well. Agreeing that what they heard was the truth. And so it was. While that professor likely toiled away grading composition papers and crushing dreams, I stood on the banks of the Danube teaching Douglas Coupland to students from nine different countries. And perhaps he was right to tell me to be realistic about my odds, and to crush that dream, so I could go about exceeding it.
So, Merry Christmas, Professor. May the year take you by surprise and shift your spirit. I wish the same for my students and for all waitstaff I encounter.
With love from Vienna,
–Vienna, Austria. Flashback in Berthoud, Colorado.