From the corner of the long room, sitting behind the outgoing department chair who stood to offer a few end-of-year remarks, I could see before me so many of the people who have fundamentally shaped who I am. It’s funny how it works that way, isn’t it? You go into a classroom the first week, worried about weekly reading loads or problem sets, dreading midterms and projects and finals. But at the end of the semester, you leave the classroom, emerging back into the world beyond, and suddenly realize that those assignments may have been the least consequential element of it all. Of value is the new or deepening relationship with the person at the front of the hall or leading the discussion that has most profoundly altered your self, your world.
I’ve spent so many semesters hearing my friends complain about some or all of their teachers. Uncaring, inflexible, or distant — these other teachers sound foreign to me when I listen to my friends. But I don’t doubt my friends’ experiences either. I’ve seen the emails refusing extensions or accommodations around personal crises. I’ve heard the cynical, dismissive, crushing remarks recounted. And it all makes me wonder what I’ve done to meet only teachers unlike these horror stories. Whatever it is I’ve done, I consider myself quite lucky.
The four years at this school are hard; they can even feel impossible at times. Those late nights with endless assignments piling up. Those days when one’s personal life comes crashing down, crushing the bubble of this campus. Those lenten months of the college years when nothing makes sense and any potential resolution to that early-twenties existential anguish vanishes from comprehension. All these things have been compressed into four short but taxing years — the sort that makes me jealous of Rip van Winkle’s slumber. In my case, in the hardest of moments, it has been a teacher’s outstretched hand that has pulled me out and forward.
I can think of so many little moments — moments so small I wonder if they even registered as consequential for them but were seismic for me.
Singled out in a crowd to discuss interests and future plans. An old book gifted, selected so carefully, so precisely that it says exactly what needed to be heard. The passing office hours comment of recognition and gratitude for class participation after a semester that had sown doubts around department choice. The bouquet given as a surprise, in lieu of a thank you note, after having read a recent essay about flowers. The willingness to discuss a book, not for its place in a canon or even just the syllabus, but for how it unwinds past personal confusions, soothes scarred wounds, or simply places the next stone in the path forward. The moment of celebration in the hallway, in an office, or over email to mark a recent accomplishment amidst a sea of so much uncertainty, perhaps insecurity.
I could go on. I have a seemingly unending cascade of moments like these when a teacher — who once intimidated me with their knowledge, their exactness, or simply their well-earned confidence and command of a classroom — broke through the clouds of the college years and gave me the spotlight, illuminating my life and my world.
So, as I sat in the corner of that room in Palmer House, enjoying the department’s end-of-year party, I couldn’t help but scan the gathered crowd, seeing not only familiar faces but also feeling an already nostalgic rush for these last few years. With every other face, I could recall a memory like the ones I’ve barreled through just above. And I could feel the slightest tear, barely there at all, in the corner of my eye — though not from the allergies plaguing me this New Jersey spring.
I sat there exactly one week after my last ever class in the department — a department that has been present in every single one of my semesters here. That’s not something I can say about much else at Princeton. So much else here has been temporary, transient in the fabric of my life. Friends, clubs, interests — they’ve all ebbed and flowed. But as I sat there, I relished in one of the last moments I’d get to enjoy this one constant of my life here, the one populated by so many teachers for whom I have neither adequate nor enough good words.
Now, as the days here dwindle, I find myself walking around campus replaying in my mind these scenes with my teachers, and wishing only for there to be more. But I also know — have known for quite a long while — that the profundity of a teacher’s influence can only truly be seen after the fact, after having moved on to the next thing. These days, I walk around the campus able to recognize the fuller depth of how the teachers of my teenage years and earlier shaped me. I imagine that only next fall, as I walk the streets of a new city, will I actually begin to more fully appreciate what my teachers at Princeton have done.
I imagine a day I climb out from the Paris metro, walk past old palaces and towers, and finally see the world and the life these teachers laid out before me. And I hope that so many more students here will share in a similar experience — that they’ll know the gift of good teachers.
José Pablo Fernández García is a senior from Ohio and head editor emeritus for The Prospect. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.