Professor Terror

Dr Anne Barnard looked like the Hollywood version of a distracted professor.  She was tall and angular with a sloppy salt and pepper ponytail, bushy black eyebrows, and coke-bottle-bottom glasses that always seemed seconds away from toppling off the end of her nose.   She  trotted around campus with a long-legged lope and rarely slowed down long enough to talk to anyone; students wishing for private conversation with her had to be prepared to jog along next to her while talking.

She scared the hell out of me.

I was a freshman at Blackburn College, devastated to learn that I was nowhere near as smart as I thought I was.  I had coasted through high school with a decent B-average that was good enough.  “Good enough” had always been acceptable for me, so my college classes were kicking my butt, especially my two English classes.

Dr Barnard was the head of the English Department, which meant that, as an English Major, I was going to have to deal with her.  That was a problem, because she didn’t seem to like me – and because she had no understanding of the “good enough” concept of education.

I spent the first semester working on my first real research paper for her:  a comparison/contrast of works based on Faustian legends, drawing from the works of Marlowe and Goethe.  I researched and wrote –and re-wrote – and proofread and did everything but tear out my hair, and I was rewarded with a B.

My roommate started her project one week before it was due, scribbled it out while watching MTV, and paid a friend to type it up.  She got a B-.

I have never been good at confrontations, but I swallowed my nervousness and chased Dr Barnard across campus to protest.  How, I demanded, could she give Julie’s trashy effort and mine such similar grades, when I had worked so much harder?

“Because that’s the best she can do,” my professor said, not even bothering to look down at me.  “You can do better.”

I couldn’t wrap my mind around that.  Was it a compliment or an insult?  Was I being punished for being smart, while my roommate reaped rewards for being lazy?  Like most conversations with Dr Barnard, her answer left me wanting to bang my head against a brick wall.

Blackburn College is the only completely student-run work program college in the U.S.  That means that every student is required to work fifteen hours per week in a job that keeps the school running.  Everything from grounds and maintenance to the cafeteria to the switchboard is done by students.  Other than a few paid professionals and the professors, every job on campus is performed by college students.

I worked in S.A.R.X – Switchboard, Admissions, Records and Xerox – for the first semester.  When I returned for the second semester, I was told to report to Dr Barnard’s office instead.  “I need you to be a tutor in the Writing Center,” she said tersely.  “You’re the first freshman to have this job.”

Great.  No pressure.

Near the end of that semester, she stopped me in the hallway to ask if I planned on going to the awards banquet that night.  Before I could answer, she made it very clear to me that my missing the banquet was not an option.  I assumed it was because I worked for her, but it was because I had been named the Outstanding Beginning Scholar in the Department of English, nominated by Professor Anne Barnard.

Professor Barnard was the first person in my life who saw my potential, who pushed me to be better than “good enough”.

I didn’t finish college.  I always intended to go back, but the years just kept going by.  I sometimes feel that I let Dr Barnard down by not living up to whatever potential she saw in me.  But then I think about the things that life has hurled at me in the years since then, and I realize that I haven’t failed at all; I have met challenges and hardships head-on with  the strength that I never knew I had until she saw it in me.

My life is different today because Dr Barnard taught me to demand more from myself and to never, ever settle for “good enough”.

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