Line of students

The picture above looks innocuous enough. Students are often in line—waiting to get into an exam or a class, waiting for tickets to a football game, waiting for a bus. But this line was different. Without my knowledge, my TA emailed my class and told them she would have a get well card for my wife, who has been challenged with heart issues over the last few months. What you see is my TA’s snapshot of the 30-minute-long line that ensued.

These students are currently in my class. Except for one or two, I have only known them for four weeks, and I am still learning names and faces. They have never met my wife, and they know her only by her official title, The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. We have not mentored them or invested in them. In fact, I have not even given them an exam yet.

What you are seeing expressed is honor. Honor is why we blow Silver Taps every month to remember fallen Aggies and why we softly call the Muster. I saw it last Saturday night at Kyle Field, as the entire stadium rose to honor the oldest living Aggie. I saw it even more intensely as everyone rose to applaud for a small group of disabled veterans who were sitting in the end zone bleachers. And the crowd repeated it, section by section, as those veterans moved by on their way out of the stadium in the second half.

Honor, freely given, is a powerful antidote to cynicism. I have observed that one of the characteristics most frequently mocked by detractors of A&M is our unflagging optimism, even in the face of contradictory evidence. I teach professional skepticism to young auditors like the ones you see standing in this line, so it is easy for me to let skepticism devolve into cynicism. But the experiences of my life since coming to Texas A&M have changed me, and I think for the better.

I am looking harder to find the good in things, and I am reconsidering my views when they are not well-informed. I am sitting still more often and taking a step back, rather than immediately trying to solve everyone’s problems. When I receive criticism, it still hurts, but I am less likely to lash back at the critic, and more likely to consider how I should change.

I do not mean to imply that being here has fixed my character problems. (If you cut me off in traffic, I will probably still honk.) But it has undeniably made a difference in my life. These voluntary expressions of honor—by my TA in arranging a card, by my students standing in line—have made it impossible for me to just careen into being a grumpy old professor.

Today I am trying to figure out ways that I can do things better and make the classroom experience richer for my students.

I keep going back to that picture of the line. What do you see there? Boredom, texting, a smile or two, conversation. What do I see?

I see the reason I invest my life at Texas A&M.