Influencing the Lives of Others
By Michael J. Graham, S.J.
This issue of Xavier magazine features a think piece on influential teachers, and, true to its intent, it got me to thinking. As a young boy, I know I flirted with a number of different career paths and possibilities. I discovered the surface of the moon through the lens of a telescope I received for Christmas one year and wanted to be an astronomer. I killed time in elementary school by staring out the window and drawing imaginative reinterpretations of houses across the street and wanted to be an architect. I discovered Ancient Egypt and dinosaur bones through books and wanted to be an archeologist.
By the time I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I don’t know where or why or how it happened. I just knew I wanted to be one. What I wanted to teach changed from year to year, depending upon who my favorite teacher was. I had a great math teacher in eighth grade, and so in the eighth grade I wanted to be a math teacher. The next year, it was science. But then, as a high school junior, I met a social studies teacher named Jack Pilling (still a good friend), and over the next two years, it was social studies. I went on to college intending to be a social studies teacher like Jack Pilling. In college, I was influenced by a social psychology teacher, reset my sights for graduate school, and went to graduate school intending to become a social psychology professor like my college advisor.
But the search was not yet done, and while in graduate school, and through friends in the American Studies Program at the University of Michigan, I came under the spell of professor John O. King, whose passion for his students was exceeded only by his passion for American intellectual history. Or maybe it was the other way around. I remember John trembling with excitement at the front of a classroom, weaving ideas in the air with his hands, his cadence rising and falling like that of a seasoned preacher. I never use the word “terribly” as an adverb—as in terribly exciting, terribly interesting, terribly influential—but that I hear his voice in my own. He shredded our papers mercilessly. “At last!” he once wrote in large red letters in the margin of a paper, long about page 16 or so, “A thesis!” I still wince at the thought. But out of class, John brought all his prodigious energy to bear on us. He tapped me enough off the course I was on to get me onto the course that has led me to where I am today. He listened to me intently as I thought out loud in his office about whether or not I should become a Jesuit. One day, as we were talking about scheduling my preliminary exams for the Ph.D., he said something like, “Well, Mike, I think you should strike while the iron is hot and enter the Jesuits this year. Let’s just get prelims out of the way so you can.” And I did.
The teachers who have touched my life are important reminders of a larger truth: A powerful providence is at work behind the scenes in our lives. We can regard the people with whom our lives intersect as there by simple chance. Or we might view them instead as gifts to us from whom we have something good to learn.
To look at life in this way—not as one thing after another after another, but as the steady unfolding of something profound and mysterious and good—means that we can see ourselves as sent into the lives of others as well, and sent for purposes not of our making. It invites us always to open our lives to the possibility that what we say and what we do might just make a difference, and perhaps a crucial difference, in someone else’s life. And that is a terribly important truth, and a terribly good one for you and me to try to live up to.