From time to time, my students come to me bearing gifts, gifts that any history professor would appreciate. One student brought to me a copy of an old family letter, a description of a great great great grandfather’s experience in the trenches on the Western Front in World War I. Another student brought to me a Civil War bayonet, an artifact that I continue to show to my students each semester. Yet another student brought to me ration stamps from World War II. I cherish these gifts from students, and I share them with my other students year after year. Students, though, have showered me with gifts of another sort, gifts that characterize the real value of the teaching/learning experience.
I have been on the receiving end of many gifts throughout my life. What a gift my family has been to me! What joy they bring to me each day. My home has been a gift that has brought to me a sense of place and a haven of rest. Throughout my life, my family – Evelyn, my son, my daughter, my parents, my brother – have taught me what it means to give and receive love. And it is the idea of gift exchange that has caused me to strive to teach better in my university classroom. After all, my calling as a teacher is a gift in itself.
I think of my school and college teachers: Mrs. Bradford in a seminary kindergarten; Mrs. Eubanks in first grade; Roy Pullam, in his first year of teaching whose excitement for the profession was infectious; Mr. Harding, a victim of polio, who inspired me in the seventh grade to learn History; Hugh Ridenour, who inspired me in high school to teach History; Bob Gillaspie, who taught me to love literature and writing, and Janice Gillaspie, who comforted me through mathematics and life. Dr. C., Pat Taylor, Dr. Albert Wardin and Dr. Roy Z. Chamlee in undergraduate school, all models of caring professionalism, and Dr. James Leo Garrett and Dr. Bill Pitts and Dr. Bert Nelli in graduate school who took a special interest in me and saw in me something that I did not see in myself. These teachers showered me with gifts, gifts of learning and inspiration. How I wish I could tell them thank you in a way that would convey to them the depth of my gratitude.
What if I could go back and be a student again, listening to a story on the oval, braided rug of my kindergarten classroom, running down the hill of the playground at Oaklawn Elementary School, walking the halls of Webster County High, soaking in the lectures at Belmont University, or talking with my professors in corner offices in graduate school at Baylor and the University of Kentucky. How much more I could learn! In P. F. Kluge’s Alma Mater, the author went back to teach at his old school, Kenyon College in Ohio. There he had lunch one day with a new colleague, an English professor, who opened the conversation with the observation that “this is my twenty-second year of teaching `Tintern Abbey.’” The English professor overcame the repetition by making each reading in each new class fresh, and by looking on teaching as a gift exchange. “I have this romantic idea of teaching as gift exchange,” he told Kluge. “What matters is if I reach a few students at a level that transforms them and gets them to see the world in a different way. Gift exchange. Sure, teaching is method and information, but it’s something else, a gift, an enrichment of your life, a transformation that you spend the rest of your life discovering.”
I still benefit from the gifts given to me by my old teachers. But the gift exchange continues still. Now, I find myself unwrapping gifts from my students: new perspectives, the excitement of learning, the awe of discovery.
Now, my students come to the classroom or to the office bearing gifts, gifts described by the Kenyan professor, as “an enrichment of your life, a transformation that you spend the rest of your life discovering.”
Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.