During Unexpected Times, Hold Onto Kindness And Compassion

Commentary By: Dean P. Johnson, Follow South Jersey Editor

As the end of the college semester approaches, a semester that held challenges and frustrations well beyond academia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students can be found frantically cramming for exams and furiously writing papers, many doing so in isolation.

Regardless of whether it’s in person or online, though, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing those last fall semester finals.  Regardless of the outcome, the cessation of academic stress is gratefully replaced by the sensation of holiday stress and a few weeks of time found.

Though this semester is not what many had looked forward to or expected or wanted, it can be helpful to try to find even the smallest hints of joy to hold onto in the unexpected.

I started thinking about finals when I heard on the radio Burl Ives’ rendition of “Holly Jolly Christmas.”  Whenever I hear that song, I cannot help but think about my biology final at Atlantic Cape Community College because the professor looked just like Burl Ives, though, to tell the truth, he more resembled the snowman on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I dreaded my biology final.  Every time I’d try to study for it, I would easily find a more pressing activity like anything else but studying.  It wasn’t that I disliked the course; I just wasn’t into it.  What made it even worse for me was the professor seemed to take the approach that everyone in the class was destined for a career in medicine or some sort of scientific hodge-podge which couldn’t have been further from my own aspirations.  Science has never been a favorite subject of mine.  I would much rather dissect fiction than frogs.

The morning of my biology final I woke up with a high fever.  I had two finals scheduled for that day:  Psychology of Adolescence/Adulthood and Biology of Our World, and I thought I could push my way through the tests if I could only stop shivering.  So, I popped a couple of Tylenol and drove to campus.

Midway through my Psych final my chest began burning with every inhale, I struggled to hold back coughs.  When the little dots on the Scan-Tron form started moving around in dizzying swirling patterns, I knew I had to give up and go home, so I randomly filled in the last five dots to put an end to my misery.  But I still had a second exam in a half an hour.  When outside the classroom I broke into uncontrollable fits of coughing, I realized I had little choice.

I walked into my professor’s office and explained to him my situation.  Keeping a safe distance from the other side of his desk, he jotted down his home phone number and told me to call him as soon as I felt better.

Four days later, two days before Christmas, I called him expecting to schedule a make-up exam for sometime during the first week of the spring semester. Instead he asked me what I was doing that afternoon and gave me directions to his home.

At his front door, I held out a doctor’s note, written evidence of my bronchitis, but he only smiled, bid me entrance and led me into his kitchen.  The house was decorated for the holiday for both sight and smell that would put Hallmark to shame.  Hints of cinnamon and nutmeg lingered about boughs of garland, laurel, and holly.

The professor offered me a seat at the table and asked if I liked mulled cider.  I confessed that I had never tasted it.  Cider was only served cold in my house, I told him.  He smiled again, walked over to the counter and lifted the lid off of a crock-pot.  What I had taken for a scented candle when I entered the house was actually the aroma emanating from this potion.  He placed an oversized coffee mug in front of me and then handed me a stapled packet of papers.  Enjoy, he said and then left the room.

I reached maybe the third question when his wife walked into the kitchen, placed a plate of holiday cookies and some napkins on the table, said she still had some shopping to do, wished me luck, and left the room.  For the next hour and a half I worked on the exam interrupted only once when my professor refilled my cup and told me to help myself to more if I so desired.

When I was done, I took my test into his living room.  The professor was sitting in an easy chair reading a book next to a Franklin Stove with doors ajar enough to show a glowing flame.  The whole scene seemed almost too cliché to me, and yet there it was.

I thanked my professor for his trouble.  He insisted that it was his pleasure, and he wished me a Merry Christmas.

Maybe it was the fact that what I presumed was a stogy science professor treated an undergrad in a gen-ed class with empathy and genuine kindness that had made a life-long impression on me, or maybe it was the image of the snowman that told me the story of Rudolph every year of my life sipping a mug of mulled cider, nibbling on a Christmas cookie, and grading my exam. 

Either way, the unexpected kindness and compassion shown to me was greater than any academic lesson because for the life of me, I couldn’t name one thing today that was on that test.

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