The instructor sat somewhere in the back of the room incognito while everyone filed in and didn't get up until a student stood in the doorway looking lost that there wasn't an empty desk. Gary, an elderly gentleman that immediately seemed gentle and kind, got up and walked to the front of the class, pulled the chair out from behind the teacher's desk and sat down. The first-day jitters eased a little, but Gary still said nothing while he looked around the room.
"Hello," he said, softly, warmly and continued to look at each of us. I know I smiled at that and thought he was either really boring, or he was playing one heck of a game on us. Finally, he crossed one leg over the other, clasped his knee with his hands, and continued.
"I'm glad to see you all here. Now, what I'd like each of you to do is come up to the blackboard and write five words that describe you." No introduction, no talk about what the course was about, just that.
Uh oh, I thought to myself, and I froze. I'm pretty sure that everyone around me held their breath too. Who was going to go first? Five words? What five words? Whatever am I going to pick for five words to describe me?
Gary stood up and walked over to lean against the window sill. He wasn't looking around at us any longer. Finally, a girl popped out of her chair and walked quickly to the blackboard. Her hand didn't hesitate as she quickly scribbled out five words. The relieved outflow of collectively held breath was definitely audible this time. I was so busy being relieved that I have little memory of that first girl or the words she wrote on the board.
Gary waited until she sat down again, then read the words on the board out loud, softly and slowly. Again, we all held our breath, and the girl who wrote them sat still with wide eyes. Slowly, he nodded and said, "I can see that," and proceeded to talk about how the five words fit together. He asked for clarification on a few things and went on like he knew the girl. But then, he asked her what her name was and repeated it back.
A-ha, now this is a new game, eh? There was no hesitation for the next person to go up to the board and write down five words, and Gary did the same thing. He repeated the words slowly, then launched into talking about who the person was before asking their name. The students would answer his questions, but didn't say much beyond that. They all seemed surprised that he could know so much about them from five words. Two more people, same thing. By that time, I was still trying to think of words that would describe me.
Finally, I got up as the fifth person to take the challenge. I walked toward that blackboard like it was the only thing in the world. I had no idea what I was going to write during that long and fateful walk up to the front of the classroom, but when I picked up the chalk, I wrote "mother," "honest" and "basic" and drew a blank. My hand hovered, then dropped the chalk back into its little shelf and turned to go back to my desk.
Before I took two steps, Gary said, "Basic? How do you mean that?" I think I had one foot held in the air from stopping so suddenly, and I replied, "It was the only word I could think of that means what-you-see-is-what-you-get." Gary laughed and smiled, his eyes released me, so I continued back to my chair. I realized that I was no longer nervous.
"So, you're a new mom?"
"Yes, my son is now 10 months old."
"And you take motherhood pretty seriously. It must be a challenge for you. And now you're in college, another big challenge." A pause here. I could only nod my head. It didn't seem like a challenge per se, but more like a path that had to be taken. "So, tell me how you came to decide to go to college."
"When I had my son, I realized I needed to grow up. You can't raise a child making minimum wage, so I have to do what it takes to give him a better life than that."
I don't remember much more than that, but I do remember that Gary seemed to talk to me a lot longer than he did anyone else. And, I was the last one for the night. It was time for the class to end.
During the next few classes, I came to understand that Gary spoke softly all the time, and when he talked slowly, he was taking his time to be sure he said exactly the right thing. I'm pretty sure he did it with everyone, though I don't know how, but he seemed to talk with me one on one every class. During the fifth class (seems to be a magic number here), he finally told us that he was the Director of the Counseling Center. This time when he talked to me, he invited me to come see him in his office.
That was the beginning of a long relationship. It wasn't counseling. It seemed that, every week for one hour for around ten years, we would chat, exchange ideas, bitch and moan, and just share. Eventually, I became one of his employees, and he was the one that told me I had graduated magna cum laude for my Bachelor's degree. During my Master's degree, I student taught with him for one of his courses at the University, all the while meeting with him once a week for an hour until he retired. Of all the people I have known, he made the biggest, most positive impact on me.
When I reflect on who and what I am, I always think of that first class in career exploration and how I could only come up with three words to describe myself. This has become my story. I wonder what words everyone I meet would choose to describe themselves.
Can you describe yourself in five words?