She will graduate in two days and move on to a successful career far from these bustling university halls. And yet here she is this morning, double checking final grades and inputting data for a research project we have worked on together. And she is doing this for minimum wage when she could literally be working for twice the money at her second job down the street at a local bank.
She recently told me she was the second busiest teller in the state for her bank holding company, and she is rewarded accordingly. Still, she focuses, making sure my students get their due, and that I have a chance to move my research forward once she is gone.
To say that Johnna Heller is my teaching assistant is to speak to me of the highest order of student imaginable. She has perhaps been busier than any TA in recent memory, and at the same time she has been finishing coursework and preparing for the CPA exam.
She holds her longsuffering boyfriend at bay while she plows through another set of questionnaires or does the first pass on a grading assignment for 106 students. He knows she will let him buy her dinner eventually and, since he is also studying for the CPA exam, he busies himself with the task at hand. Such is the price of dating excellence.
A legacy of excellence
I have had a number of remarkable TAs in my years as a professor who have made a real difference in moving my work forward and allowing me to more effectively do my real job, which is investing in people. This semester I had the privilege of seeing two of them in one day who have moved into significant roles of influence in their firms. One trained my son’s analytical mind to deal with data while he was still in high school, setting the table for his time in business school and his career as a consultant. Another made sure that son had a ticket to an Aggie Cotton Bowl, and still takes the time during many of her monthly visits to Connecticut with her firm to take the train to New York City and buy my daughter dinner. My flash drive is named for a third.
Now I am in an administrative role that forces me to delegate more to my TA than I have historically done. But I sensed from the first day that Johnna worked for me that this was a job that she really wanted to do. It makes me wonder, in a world where business school students seem more focused on success than growth, what lies ahead of her.
I remember a young man once who began working on a master’s degree when he was married, with two small children in tow. Without many alternatives, he sought out a TA job in his chosen field of accounting. Because all the accounting slots were filled, he was assigned a teaching responsibility in statistics, managing to stay about two days ahead of the students all semester long. But in those frantic days, he discovered something remarkable that he had not seen in his first few years of work—his work made a difference in students’ lives, and it made them better. Like Johnna, he didn’t make much money doing it. But that experience changed the course of his life. After public accounting and another visit to industry, he returned for his Ph.D., and the rest, as they say—is my life.
Thankful for a teacher
That professor I first worked for would not remember me now, nor the difference he made in my life, though he is still teaching today. His mentoring and friendship as I first tried my wings allowed me the confidence to chart a new course, one that has been meaningful to me in so many ways. And I have never really stopped to express my gratitude. So let this be my thank you to Dr. Gary Kelley at West Texas A&M University.
This week I will say goodbye to a person who cannot be measured by her wage or by her accomplishments. As with the other remarkable people who have gone before her, the life ahead of her is far removed from the cluttered office of an aging professor, with memos stuck in pincushion walls, and the dusty memories of a career measured in plaques and diplomas.
Her boyfriend—and the world—wait for the emergence of one significant life at the other end of that graduation stage. What lies ahead for her is a life of impact and meaning, one with purpose and direction. She is going to make a difference.
Next week I will turn from my computer to my doorway, half expecting her to be standing there silently, waiting to ask a clarifying question. The ghosts of those who went before her hover outside my door, apparent only to me in my quieter moments.
In truth, as I wrote these words, she appeared in my doorway one last time, for the best conversation we have ever had. It is one that I will remember for a while, and it made me reflect on who I really am inside, and who I want to be. It also made me love my wife and children more.
Around Aggieland, this is a week of rejoicing and laughter. And I will readily join in with the students and their families as they celebrate.
But there’s a certain melancholy for me, as well. Because, this week, I will be saying goodbye to my TA.