Words We Never Forget

When I was nineteen years old, I had a professor I respected deeply. Her class challenged me. It was a 400-level rhetoric course, and I, as a third-semester sophomore, was the youngest student enrolled. All other students were seniors. 

I felt this disparity keenly. Although I had no tangible proof, I sensed that my older classmates analyzed more deeply, summarized more succinctly, and understood more easily.

In my mind, they sauntered through the readings while I trudged. They breezed through the weekly synopsis papers while I clawed for each word. During the first weeks, I faithfully attended class, but I didn't contribute to discussions often. I didn't want to reveal that I was an imposter.

It's been 25 years, and I still remember the fall afternoon when my professor returned graded essays at the end of class. Mine had a handwritten note asking for me to see her after class. As we stood on the sidewalk directly outside Sackett Building under the shade of the iconic elms that lined Penn State's mall, she asked if I'd permit her to share my writing as an example for other students who were struggling.

I was floored. Gobsmacked. Flabbergasted. Then she uttered this sentence: "Robin, you're so smart that you make my teeth hurt."

I've never forgotten those words. Especially because she said them to a person who, at the time, didn't even believe she was smart enough to be enrolled in the class. I wanted to respond, "Well, I make my own teeth hurt, too, but that's because I grind them as I painstakingly chew my way through your assignments."

Quite honestly, I didn't even know that I needed to hear that she thought I was smart, but once I knew, it sure helped. My confidence grew that day.

It's amazing how much power words possess. Now that I'm in a reverse position — teaching college students, rather than being a college student — I consider my own words thoughtfully. I want my feedback not only to be helpful and constructive, but also seasoned with grace and encouragement. 

I hope I've spoken words over students that they'll never forget in all the right ways. I hope that one day, a student will be able to recall the exact location where they stood when I said something they didn't even know they needed to hear until they heard it.

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