Saturday, August 7, 2010

One hand clapping

He was white-haired, tall and lanky, features that were exaggerated by the slightly too short gray flannel trousers and slightly too wide navy blue blazer that he wore to class every day. He hailed from England, and in addition to his expertise in analytical chemistry, he had a fascination with the history of chemistry. From my perspective as a 20 year old, I thought that his latter interest more closely resembled nostalgia, since he was obviously so old that he probably experienced most of it first-hand.

Dr. S. started class promptly at the appointed hour, and delivered meticulously prepared lectures that were timed to end exactly 50 minutes later. He did not use any fancy gimmicks – his style would definitely be described today as the “sage on the stage,” a role he loved, and frankly, he was very, very good at it. He had huge hands with long fingers, a feature that he used to great effect in those lectures. To emphasize his points he quickly folded his long fingers to his palm, chirping “Right?” and replying “Right!” while unfolding them again. He did this fast enough that he made a crisp clapping sound; among other things, students in his class learned the sound of one hand clapping.

I think I mentioned that Dr. S. was older than Methuselah when I had him for a full year chemistry course in the 1978/79 academic year. I vividly remember watching him, thin and frail, walk down the corridors to class and thinking, “Please Dr. S, don’t die in class today. “ I think I half-expected him to keel over in the middle of one of those meticulously prepared lectures, probably hitting the floor with his very British “Right?” (Thud) and uttering his last word in reply, “Right!”

But Dr. S. did not die that year and I was greatly relieved that I did not personally witness his demise. Instead, what he did that year was to teach us a whole helluva lot of science. He paid a great deal of attention to our work, especially in the laboratory, but when he was pleased, he did not tell us so. Instead, he gave us copies of extra reading and asked us, individually as he felt appropriate, to please incorporate the ideas in these supplementary readings into our next laboratory reports. Or, he’d say of a laboratory exercise that he designed for us, “That experiment doesn’t really work as well as it should. Instead of doing what I planned, please try using different compounds and different conditions and see if you can get it to work better.” This could be construed as extra work, and I suppose it was, but it was incredibly motivating. Our success was acknowledged -- not with back patting--but with the challenge to do more and his confidence that we were ready.

I graduated in 1979 and went on to graduate school, I suppose, in part because of his influence. In a very subtle way, he was a mentor for me. We had nothing in common; I was a young American female, he was an ancient British male, and we did not get to know each other very well on a personal level. Nonetheless, he was a key person in my professional development, although I am quite sure I didn’t realize it at the time. I was far too busy worrying about his mortality.

Now, about Dr. S and mortality.

After I graduated from college and graduate school, I became a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I had been working there for some time when I happened to attend a research conference in San Diego, California. It must have been 1994 or so. I wandered into the hotel restaurant for breakfast one morning and I could not believe my eyes. A full 15 years AFTER I sat in class wondering each day if it would be his last, Dr. S was calming sitting with his wife having a cup of tea. He was wearing the same slightly too short gray flannel trousers, and slightly too wide navy blue blazer. He had not changed an iota. You could have plucked him out of that 1978 classroom and put him in that hotel restaurant. I felt a bit shy, wondering if he’d even remember me, so I did not go over to his table. Instead, I sat down, had a cup of coffee and tried to work up enough courage to say hello. By the time I did so, he was gone. Not from this earth, but from the restaurant, and I did not see him again at the meeting.

Now, some more about Dr. S and mortality.

In 1998, I left ORNL and came to Saginaw Valley State University as a professor of chemistry. Being on the ‘other side of the podium’ made me think a lot about my own teachers and perhaps for the first time, I thought very deliberately about their styles. I tried to incorporate what I found to be the most helpful characteristics of my professors- energy, enthusiasm, clarity, kindness, and carefully planned and implemented challenges. Around 2003 or 2004, I decided to go out on a limb and I sent emails to a few of the professors from whom I ‘borrowed’ the most. After all, by then I knew how much a letter of appreciation can mean to a teacher. All of those professors were retired, but they each responded, and to my surprise they actually remembered me. I did not contact Dr. S, because, well, I assumed he had passed on by then. In fact, I was right, but it had only been in the previous year or so. He worked to the end; he had retired from teaching some time before, but came to the office religiously to work on his history of chemistry, which I guess he had not really experienced first-hand.

Today I am grateful for the professors who taught me well as a student and provided the framework for the work I do today. May I be one of those professors for the next generation.


  1. Take it from an old student of yours, you are in fact one of those professors :-).


  2. That's a great post, Deb. Very moving. And I can relate very much.
    - David R.

  3. Thanks Amanda and David. I am flattered that you read this and I appreciate your kind comments.