I opened mail from my alma mater a few months ago to read that Dr. Heard had died.
My heart sank, and my eyes filled with tears.
Dr. Betty Heard was my college adviser and a professor in the English department. She taught me Milton, an English education class, and Victorian British Novel--which is my favorite kind of literature--I think--I do love Romantic poets...and American Transcendentalists...and Shakespeare...and Hemingway and Fitzgerald.... But Austen, Bronte, Hardy; it doesn't get any better than that. (However, I could do without Dickens. Twice in my educational career I failed to read assigned texts; both were Dickens.)
I wanted to attend the Homecoming Chapel service that honored her, but it was on a Sunday, and I kind of have a job that happens on Sundays. I've thought a hundred times, "If I were the pastor who'd been asked to speak about her at the service, then what would I have said?"
It's taken me three months to be able to form those words. Here goes...
Dr. Heard was the kind of professor who taught more than literature and grammar, although she taught both extremely well. She taught about the importance of attitude and character, and high expectations and grace.
She was the kind of adviser who cared about academics and career path, but who also cared about personal growth and life-altering choices of all kinds.
She was the kind of adviser who showed up at the ER when one of the twins was sick, and who offered to call their mom and let her know they were okay.
She was the kind of professor who gave exams at a coffee shop.
She was the kind of professor who invited students to walk to her home to watch a movie and eat popcorn with M&M's.
She was the kind of adviser who made time for lunch with former students when they traveled back for a visit.
She was the kind of professor who let you know when she was proud of you.
She was a captivating, attractive person whom people wanted to be around. She made everyone around her better; she brought out the best in people.
Dr. Ausband, then the head of the English department (now the Dean), once told me that Dr. Heard failed more students than anyone else, but he also fielded the fewest complaints about her. He said students all but thanked her for failing them. I suspect that's because she was honest and loving, and we all knew she wanted the best for us. But the best for us meant living up to high expectations, not making excuses.
I remember Dr. Heard often, every time I say, "often." Until Dr. Heard, I didn't know that the "t" in often is silent. But it is. She taught me that.
She taught me to never lose my temper in front of students, because once you do, you've lost control. I wish I'd been able to live up to her example.
She taught me that if something is wrong enough to alter your personality, then tell your students up front. Don't leave them guessing.
I am better for my time with Dr. Betty Heard. I am probably one of thousands of people who can say that.
I always remember Dr. Heard this time of year, because I memorized a section of Milton's "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" for the final exam. I can still recite it.
Merry Christmas, Dr. Heard. Miss you.