The Nice Thing About Strangers

Creative Non-Fiction Short Stories. :) Travel, Oldsters, Love, and Compassion.

For the (Mean) Professor who told me to be Realistic

On a brilliant November day, my 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 renewed my 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 upset.

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.

Ich Bin Graffiti, graffiti Vienna

23 comments on “For the (Mean) Professor who told me to be Realistic

  1. alienheartbeat
    April 11, 2013

    But… he may have done you a favor. Being a professor is a miserable life. Shackled in grey. Murky coffee in murky halls for 40 years. I almost became a mathematics academic – but woke up just in time.

  2. hughcurtler
    September 18, 2013

    If I had been that professor I would have told you to follow your dreams!

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      September 19, 2013

      I appreciate that! I am a professor now, and I make it a daily practice to encourage my students. I would be honored if one would “unseat me” one day. 🙂

  3. thenicethingaboutstrangers
    October 9, 2013

    Reblogged this on The Nice Thing About Strangers and commented:

    A dear friend told me this was one of his favorites. I re-read it and felt a lift in my spirits as well. I hope it will do the same for you.

  4. billgncs
    October 9, 2013

    if I talk to a young athlete I always tell them – somebody needs to be on the Olympic team, why not you? Train like it.

    If they are in school – somebody has to make the next great invention or write the next great book, go for it.

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      October 11, 2013

      I love this. I guess we do often have to ask, “Why not me?” It’s tough for writers, I think, to battle that self-doubt. Yet, I’ve gotten more encouragement from writing this blog than in years of sending stories to journals.

  5. Sherbet and Sparkles
    October 10, 2013

    At high school, a teacher told me that since I suck at French, I’m just not a language person and should give up on Japanese… Now with Japanese, German and some Chinese under my belt, who can still say I’m just not a language person?!

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      October 11, 2013

      Awesome! And those have to be some of the toughest to tackle. Sometimes we just need to me the hater that we wish to overcome!
      Sehr gut!

  6. Verna
    October 10, 2013

    I really enjoyed this one too Paige, your side of the challenge turned out great, you climbed to new heights….. others could have crashed and gave up. I guess that is the point of challenge, do we believe in ourselves enough to carry out our dream or let someone else side line us?!

    blessings to wherever in the world you are.

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      October 11, 2013

      Hi Verna! Hope all is well at Sisters! Thanks for the kind words. I agree. It can be tough, especially when young to have that belief. The sooner we can get off the sidelines, the better. 🙂

  7. barbarafranken
    October 11, 2013

    A wonderful story that teaches us all to be thoughtful about what we say… Afterall what we say is only our perspective of life and depending on the persons own perspective and choices they make in life they will create their own destiny… Education is a wonderful way to be an example… of sunshine in the rain…. Thank you for visiting my blog… Barbara

  8. Jackson M
    October 20, 2013

    MY goodness Paige!!!

    I am not only impressed but truly inspired and amazed how well your thoughts/experiences are expressed into print. Loved your stories!! I am so honored to call you friend….even though we go back many years 😉 …maybe even lifetimes.

    You have convinced me… although I already knew that you are wonderful and very intelligent young woman. You are so very interesting and wonderful to talk to.
    Thank you for enlightening me to your website.

    God bless you always!
    A fan of you!

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      October 20, 2013

      Holy moly, what a lovely comment! 🙂 Thank you so much! But now I’m trying to figure out who you are…lifetimes? Hmm!

  9. Browsing the Atlas
    November 2, 2013

    I had a boss like that once. He told me not to expect to ever be advanced. I was stunned. But he’s left the company there and I’m still there– traveling the world.

  10. gardenpinks
    November 2, 2013

    What a negative pious prig that professor was and well done you for achieving your goal despite his comments!

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      November 3, 2013

      🙂 Thank you! It’s a good things I just ran into him in a restaurant and not in a classroom.
      My profs were always encouraging, inspiring, and caring. They were much better role models for me–then and now.

  11. johnspizziri
    January 16, 2014

    now that one was good: remember you are just as good at your passion as the first person who ever did it– and folks consider the firsties as members of the pantheon of heroes.

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      January 16, 2014

      Wow, I really like that take! I always think of my favorite profs as I work, and the things they did to really catch my attention and inspire new ideas. Maybe I should think of the firsts! 🙂
      Thank you, John-

      • johnspizziri
        January 16, 2014

        the wright brothers flew for 59 seconds and we will never forget: if you could only fly for 59 seconds they would put you in jail.

  12. petermoise65
    August 17, 2014

    I really hate people who forget where they come from and become so disenchanted with their pitiful lives that they feel the need to destroy other’s dreams. Great story. I like the supernatural flavor you added. BTW, it is the first time I’ve ever encountered someone using a Christmas card in a derogatory manner. LOL. I would have sent him a one finger salute, two if he’s British. 😉 Hey, but that’s just me…

    • thenicethingaboutstrangers
      August 18, 2014

      🙂 Lol, Peter, well the Christmas card seems like a more fitting punishment that keeps me up a level. And something Mom would be proud of–no return address, of course.
      I think this guy has inspired me to be a better prof, a more supportive mentor, and a more engaged friend. Here’s hoping we never forget where we started, Peter. 🙂

      • petermoise65
        August 18, 2014

        I totally agree! Long live the down trodden for we shall be the better heroes! 🙂

      • thenicethingaboutstrangers
        August 19, 2014

        There are a few hymns about just this sort of thing, right? 🙂

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