I believe I have learned some of life’s most important lessons from my students. Two come immediately to mind. Alverna Williams hopped into my college office the first day of classes some years ago. She had no legs and used her arms and hands as legs and feet. As soon as she catapulted herself into the chair, she said, “I’m Alverna Williams and I’m here to improve my writing skills so I can tell all my fascinating life stories. Oh, by the way, I’m not handicapped! A lot of folks think I’m handicapped because I don’t have legs, but I have done everything I ever wanted to do including having a baby, riding a motorcycle in the circus, and piloting my own private plane. I believe I am the first American without legs to receive a pilot’s license. My picture is somewhere in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum as a pioneer for people with handicaps piloting a plane. The only thing is that I’m not handicapped!” It turned out that Alverna’s legs were cut off by a streetcar when she was a toddler. That semester I took a group to visit Yucatan Mayan sites, and I’ll never forget that Alverna was the first student to reach the top of the Pyramid of the Inscriptions. She flew to the summit on her spring-loaded hands. Alverna passed away a couple of years ago after having lived the richest of lives. Among the many things I learned from Alverna, the most important is that tragedy does not have to define the future.
Mary Roberts Wilson, showed up in my World Religion class on a fall morning in 1998. With her glistening white hair and wall-to-wall smile, she said to me, “May I sit in your class this semester? I’m 85 years old, and want to learn as much as I can about other cultures.” So she came to every class meeting and I appreciated her as a grandmotherly-type who wanted to be a lifelong learner. But shortly before Christmas, all that changed when she said, “I have a gift for you. It’s a book that just came out today called The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw.” Of course, I had not heard of it so I said to Mary, “Why are you giving me this book?” She said, “Look at page 173.” And when I opened to that page there was a chapter entitled “Mary Louise Roberts Wilson.” I was speechless! This little white-haired lady was the famous Angel of Anzio whose “angelic” work during World War Two at a mobile hospital in Anzio, Italy allowed her to be one of the first women in American military history to receive the Silver Star. When I gave the eulogy at her funeral I said that Mary had taught me many valuable lessons, but the most important is never to assume anything about anybody.
Yes, during almost forty years of teaching, I’ve learned to become a student to some of life’s greatest teachers!