Education Opinion

The Gift

By Lou Orfanella — May 01, 2002 3 min read
A professor who noticed the little things inspired one student to become a teacher.

Last December, the obituary in the New York Times announcing that Columbia University professor Wallace Gray had died of a heart attack at the age of 74 took me by surprise. I had always taken for granted that he was one of those people who had been at Columbia forever and always would be, no less than the statue of Alma Mater sitting on the steps of Low Library.

One of the world’s foremost authorities on James Joyce, Dr. Gray was already a legend on the Columbia campus when I arrived as an insecure freshman in the fall of 1978. His course “Eliot, Joyce, and Pound” was always filled to lecture-hall capacity, and he would offer, not as braggadocio, but as a matter of fact and honesty, “I know all there is to know about Ulysses and am going to teach you all of it.”

The confidence. The mastery. The ability to be intellectual without distancing himself from his students. I wondered whether I’d ever know enough about anything to teach it to others. As the semester progressed, we discussed a pending term paper. I expressed an interest in experimenting with a creative exercise in the same way as Joyce, who’d used Homer’s Odyssey as the framework for Ulysses. Professor Gray encouraged me to do so. Instead of having Leopold Bloom wander through Dublin, I sent a New York City cab driver on an odyssey of self-discovery. It was a crude attempt at fiction, to be sure, but having a renowned professor give me the opportunity to do something that I had never done taught me far more than writing any research paper would have.

A couple of years later, as a senior, I was accepted into his small seminar course. The class studied Ulysses only, each student taking two chapters and presenting his or her research-based analysis to the rest of the group. I was excited and honored to be in the group, which included a bright, young classmate named George Stephanopoulos. But then the magnitude of the task struck me. How could I possibly find something original to say about Joyce’s work—something Dr. Gray did not already know?

When my turn came, I ran through the chapters, citing reference materials and guiding the rest of the group in a choppy manner at best, still not sure I would ever know enough about anything to teach it. But at one point, I offered a personal interpretation of what seemed an inconsequential line in the novel. Dr. Gray stopped me and asked if the idea I’d just suggested was an original one. I told him it was, and he was duly impressed.

Dr. Gray stopped me and asked if the idea I’d just suggested was an original one. I told him it was, and he was duly impressed.

I’m sure that moment was one of many later forgotten in Dr. Gray’s distinguished career, but it was life-changing for me. I realized, that afternoon, that I did know enough about something to teach it. Years went by, indeed a century came to an end, and I found myself in the role of veteran teacher. I’d taught high school, middle school, and—as much as it would have surprised that insecure freshman—English at the college level. I sent Dr. Gray a note reminiscing about the seminar and told him that much of what I learned from him has, over time, been incorporated into my own teaching. Like him, I’ve striven to allow students to be individuals and to take chances, and I’ve always felt that being honest about who you are and how you approach subject material is the best way to reach students.

He wrote back, remembering our time together and, still encouraging and supportive, added: “Given what you wrote to me about relationships between teacher and text and teacher and student, I am confident that you are a marvelous teacher. Besides, given your enthusiasms for life, literature, and other people, how could you not be?”

As I looked at that letter, side by side with his obituary and a mimeographed invitation to an end-of-semester wine party he’d given us after the Ulysses seminar, it saddened me to know that Dr. Gray would no longer be teaching. Then I thought again of the freedom and the encouragement he gave me. He made me realize the value of recognizing even the smallest contribution, and because of him, I came to believe I could contribute to the world of academia. I thought of these things, and I suddenly realized I’d been mistaken. Dr. Gray hadn’t gone anywhere; he lives on in what I do every day. Maybe that is what teaching is all about.