A Shining Example, Lost: Remembering a Good Teacher

04/13/2011 11:23 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2011
  • Alyson Renaldo Actor and Executive Director, The Cheryl's Daughter Foundation

"And they pay me to do this." I keep hearing him say that in my mind. A week ago, we lost Dr. Manning Marable, a prominent historian, a dedicated professor and on a personal note, my graduate thesis adviser. I enjoyed my classes with him. I appreciated his guidance.

Dr. Marable said many things to me ranging from, "I was extremely impressed with your presentation in class today Alyson," to "You need help!" when he and I got into a disagreement in the school halls in front of my classmates. The latter was not one of my finer moments, but not all moments are. In addition to his wealth of knowledge he also shared with us, his students, some of his fascinating firsthand accounts of prominent places and people with whom he had interacted over the years.

So why, amongst all that insight, would my brain fish out one little unoriginal offhand catchphrase of his? Well, because of what it signified. His example taught me that a person could carve out a space where their passion and talent could realistically be the driving force of their life. He would acknowledge his gratitude for being at that place by simply stating "and they pay me to do this," a point which was particularly profound for his students of color, like me, as here he happened to be a successful professional of color. He stood as irrefutable proof that we could achieve the same if we remained focused. Seeing him deliver his catchphrase was like looking directly at some of the rewards of hard work -- contentment and purpose.

Funny enough, near as I can tell, Dr. Marable's little assertion had precious little to do with money. For those of us who had a class with him, or asked him a question in the halls, or sought his guidance during office hours, we know that his dedication to our education and personal growth was clear and ever-present.

The reader may now be wondering, "What's the big deal? I've had teachers like this, and frankly what you're describing is the way I believe all teachers should be."

Well, reader, I couldn't agree with you more, but what should be and what is do not always align. I remember another professor during graduate school, hailed by many as the best, someone you just 'had to take,' so I did. I met with this professor, who told me, "I wake up tired, go to bed tired," and "once I've finished these last three books I'm writing, I'm out [of academia]." Oh-kay. I expressed my empathy over the situation, asked my question and left. At the time, I felt bad that this instructor felt so poorly. Now, considering that exchange in light of the fact that I never once heard Dr. Marable complain about or even mention his chronic illness -- one so serious that he underwent a double lung transplant; in light of his consistent enthusiasm in the classroom; and in light of the fact that what I witnessed in his example resonates with me to this day, I feel confident in saying that not all teachers embrace the challenge of pushing their students forward. I was fortunate to have one who did.

Finally, I must be perfectly honest: I did not have this depth of understanding six years ago as I sat in his class. As a matter of fact, I believe my first thoughts to his catchphrase were "Wow, I wonder how much he makes. I betcha Dr. Marable doesn't carry a balance on his Visa card." Clearly, my insight at the time was embarrassingly limited. Luckily for me, and for all of humanity, understanding does not exist solely along one plain of consciousness and learning, or more specifically growth, does not always take place in an instant.

As I sit here, still wrapping my head around the fact that the last time I spoke to this person I greatly admired was indeed the last time, I have one continued hope: that everyone has remembrances of a dedicated teacher at some point in their lives. You were probably taught much more than you realize, which is a gift.

Yes Dr. Marable, they paid you to be a leader in academia, to mentor and teach thousands of students, to model success, to craft dozens of books and articles and to dream big. I'd say it was money well spent.

You'll be missed by a great many. I can't wait to read your new book, Malcolm X: A life of Reinvention. I know it will be a great read and... educational.