When I was 12, I needed two hands to lug my dad’s briefcase to his car, and I practically tipped over hoisting it into the trunk. He always hurried over to help. After serving in the Navy in World War II and attending graduate school at Northwestern University, he became a professor of organic chemistry. He bought a new briefcase made of dark brown leather that eventually developed a distinct patina. By the time I came along, that briefcase had spent decades toting quizzes and textbooks to his office at Lake Forest College in Illinois. It seemed to always be at his feet, standing on its flat bottom, metal hinges propping the top open. Once I asked my dad why he never used the briefcase’s combination lock. “I don’t lock it because knowledge isn’t a secret,” he said. “Every book you see in this house is open to you.”
In the summers, I went to college with him. I’d reach into the briefcase, inhale the scent of old books, and pull out a piece of his favorite brand of chalk. I copied diagrams of molecules on the blackboard as he coached his research students. He reviewed the results of experiments with them, then leaned back, folded his hands behind his head, and asked them what they thought. They tentatively offered a possible step, and he encouraged them to try their ideas. I didn’t know yet that I was absorbing his teaching style, a unique mix of structure and freedom that taught students to think for themselves.
In high school, I began giving clarinet lessons, and I kept teaching through college and graduate school. I told myself that I was doing it just for the money. But the more my students lit up when mastering a passage of Mozart, the more I’d light up, too. After graduate school in music performance, I started teaching at a local junior college.
Barely older than most of my students, and much younger than some, I was unprepared for lecturing to large classes on music theory and history. Intimidated, I tried to play the part, pulling my hair into a bun and, though I didn’t need glasses, wearing a pair with severe black frames. I also bought myself a briefcase, a sleek black Coach satchel that I hoped would last my entire career. But my students were bored. The more I pushed, asserted rules, and became impatient, the more they lagged. They arrived late and started fidgeting well before my lectures ended.
Finally, I went to my dad for advice. He gave me a box of his favorite chalk and told me I needed to find my own way. I thought back to his research students, and I changed my style.
I began to assign group projects. Instead of lecturing, I rotated between clusters of students. I offered questions and then got out of their way. Slowly, my lecture hall began to fill with laughter and discussion. Students arrived on time and stayed late. For the next decade, I continued to refine my application of Dad’s philosophy in classrooms and workshops across the country. I’m beginning to understand his lesson: acquire deep knowledge in your field, then create a structure that allows students to discover it for themselves.
After 55 years as a professor, Dad retired recently. Following his final graduation, he said, “You teach such a variety of students. I could never do that. Your teaching has surpassed mine.” True or not, his praise gave me joy and the courage to continue.
My dad still maintains a lab where he runs experiments and mentors faculty members. His briefcase is still in use and never locked. I no longer need his help to lift my own briefcase into the car, and it’s only beginning to get broken in. It’s always ready, always open.Gita Brown is an educator and writer in Kingston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.