Letters, we get letters

A few years ago I was reading a student paper written for the senior capstone. In this particular assignment, students were asked to provide a narrative description of those activities they had been involved in on a voluntary basis. Most of my students write about their participation in school activities, sports, or church missions. Anyway, what struck me about this one paper was the passion evident whenever the student, a young woman, wrote about working with the youth group at her church. In my response, I mentioned what I had seen in her paper:
You seem to have gained so much from your various involvements, but I just have to ask you something. You spoke so passionately about working with young people and your faith. Why then are these not your career aims? I tried for years to follow my father and brothers in the building trades and was miserable. Almost in spite of myself I ended up a teacher, and I have never regretted it. Could I make more money elsewhere? Probably. But I cannot even imagine loving another job more.

So why do something other than what you love? Why not go to seminary, or at the very least teach young people the subject you have spent so much time in college studying? You don’t have to answer these questions for me. You have your reasons, which I respect, but I know from my own experience how important the choice of vocation is. You may already know this, but the word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, which means “a spiritual calling from God.” If the passion in this paper is any indication, you may have a calling to go to seminary or to work with young people. I would at least listen closely if I were you.
I got a short note back from this student. In it she told me that she had sat in her car after class reading my comments and weeping. Apparently she had applied and been accepted to graduate school in pharmacy and felt an enormous responsibility to her family to follow this route instead of doing something for which she so obviously had a passion. She thanked me for caring and said she would really think about her life path. Ironically, that same day I received a long letter from a very devout student upset about reading Darwin in my course. She said she pitied me as a foolish secularist and possible atheist. So in less than 24-hours I had been thanked for encouraging a student to attend seminary and called a "filthy atheist" for teaching Darwin.

This odd coincidence came to mind yesterday. When I arrived at work there was an email in my inbox from a former student. He had taken the senior capstone three years ago and found himself thinking back to the conversations we had in class. He even reread his old papers and looked over the comments I had written him. Then he looked up my faculty web page and found his way to this blog. You have no idea how much a note like this means to a professor. We often feel we don't make much of an impression upon our students. For one to sit down and write an email letting you know this... Well, it's really something remarkable.

Then, late in the day, I received another email that criticized me for something I had said in class. Obviously, I am concerned whenever some stray comment I make upsets a student to the point of tears or provokes someone to fire off an email out of the blue, but it's not the first time this has happened. And sometimes it's not even a bad thing.


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