A great teacher is an earthquake.
He or she enters your world suddenly, slipping a fault you might never have known existed. Just like that, in a moment of another idle afternoon, you find that the lines you’ve drawn around your mind shudder, pushed back by the glorious might of a new understanding. Your world shifts.
You carry that moment with you, your world different than it was before. Sometimes bounding, more often blundering, you move on through the wandering paths of your life seeing all things anew. That moment grows into being. Steps in even the most familiar of places become footfalls on untrodden shores.
And still it grows. Your changed life touches others. If you’re lucky, you go on to cause little earthquakes of your own: the residual aftershocks of your experience.
The impact of that moment in time, that touch of a great teacher, spreads like a seismic wave. It laps the earth, flickering meters in places that you’ve never been, among people who’ve never heard of the one who made it happen and who can never experience that moment in that idle afternoon when it all changed.
I learned today that Dr James W. Vardaman has passed away. He was a great teacher.
He was one of my earthquakes.
I was fortunate to do well enough in high school that I had a number of scholarship offers for college. Many of these were in Texas, including one from Baylor University, the largest Baptist school in the world.
It was and is a most excellent school, but I was not and am not a Baptist.
Still, when my father and I traveled to Texas for some campus visitations, Baylor happened to be a point between other destinations. On a lark, we stopped into the visitor center.
It was a Friday, early afternoon. Campus was relatively quiet. The folks who greeted us learned that I wanted to study history, to become a teacher. Phone calls were made, and they suggested I go meet with a history professor who happened to be in his office.
A fault line, though I didn’t know it, was forming.
Not long afterward, I found myself alone in the basement of the Tidwell Bible Building, home of the Department of History (among others). Blindfold me and I could walk smiling to that office door right now, though back then I approached it with nervousness in my chest. The tension before the quake, I suspect.
Grey hair was bobbing behind stacks of books and papers. Classical strings were blooming in the sanctified air. Professor Vardaman was grading.
I knocked. He looked up.
My world trembled.
The next hour comes in flashes. We talked of many things. Throughout, he treated me as a peer, as a man. He was, he later admitted, appraising me. In those minutes he found my strengths, my weaknesses, and most importantly, my potential. He knew what I needed, because this is exactly what a great teacher does.
He introduced me around. The world was a blur. He told me I belonged at Baylor. He told me he wanted me to be in his classes. He shook my hand.
I remember walking out to meet my dad, who was sitting on a bench beneath a wide and glorious tree. It was our first campus visit, but I confess to you now that I already knew exactly where I was going to go.
The experience of my Baylor education changed my life in every way possible, in ways I continue to discover today. Dr Vardaman, in a few minutes that afternoon, changed my life.
And then he did it again.
A few weeks into my sophomore year, I walked out of Dr Rust’s survey course on the modern world and found a familiar face in the hall, waiting for me. I had not yet been able to have Professor Vardaman in class, but he’d apparently been keeping tabs on me. “I want you to come to Europe,” he said.
I was, you must understand, a young man from a modest background who could count on one hand the number of times he had crossed the Mississippi. “Europe?”
His great bushy eyebrows nodded. “I run a study abroad program every spring in The Netherlands. I want you to come.”
I gawked, made my most professional “Um.”
“You need to come.”
Dollar signs were flashing in my head. Lots of them. If it wasn’t for the scholarships I couldn’t afford to be at Baylor at all. To add expenses to Europe on top of that? Well…
“I don’t think I can afford it,” I said.
The eyes beneath those eyebrows twinkled. “But if you could accord it then you would go?”
“Sure,” I said, thinking he was risking nothing.
He nodded, too, and he smiled. I didn’t know it, but a pact had been struck. He was a great teacher, and great teachers … well, they tend to have A Plan.
A week later he was waiting there again. Same time. Same spot.
“Can we talk?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
His gaze appraised, seemed satisfied. “You’re going to come to Europe with me.”
“Dr Vardaman,” I said, trying to be gentle on the good soul, “I told you, I just don’t think we can afford it. I’ve got scholarships, but—”
He waved me off. “Oh, I took care of that. I told some people you needed to go and now you have an extra scholarship to help cover it.”
“You … what?”
“Let’s go to my office,” he said. “We’ll need to talk about the details.”
Not waiting for my reply, not waiting for me to retrieve my jaw from the floor, he turned on his heels and headed for the stairway to the basement. I followed him … to his office and then across the Atlantic to a semester spent in Maastricht that fundamentally altered my perception of the world and my place within it.
I would not be a medievalist if it wasn’t for that trip. I would not have pushed myself so hard to become a professor if I hadn’t had Dr Vardaman there from the beginning telling me to reach for something more, to strive for something bigger than my dreams. I would not, in a phrase, be me.
I could tell so many more stories of our conversations, of his lasting legacy in my life. I’ve published six books and three novels now. Each of them has been an attempt to live up to what possibility he might’ve seen in me.
My last book won the Distinguished Book Prize from the Society for Military History, and for months now I’d been planning to send a copy to him. “Look!” I wanted to tell the great man. “Remember that evening you sat me down and told me about the Battle of Crécy? Well, I wrote a book about it, and it won an award. That means you won it, too.”
I wanted to send this. I meant for him to see it. The Lord of Time had other plans, but I cling to the faith that he knew some small measure of what he had done.
As a teacher, I strive to be as he was. To be a great teacher. To cause earthquakes of my own — little ones, big ones, unexpected ones — in the hope that each little seismic impact can branch off and cause its own.
Put enough of them together, I think, and you can change the world.
And I am but one face among many, one soul of the many thousands that this great and wonderful man touched and shook and changed.
James Vardaman has died. For all of us, the earth quakes again.