I remember graduate school only too well. This was before computers, so it meant long nights in the library, and long nights sitting up writing papers, having teachers who would not accept a paper if you had used correction tape or Wite-Out anywhere on the page—the page had to be re-typed with no corrections visible anywhere. Everything had to be perfect. A mistake on the bibliography page meant re-typing the entire page. As I look back on it now as a teacher myself, I see that that behavior by so many of my professors, while it taught me to be very careful with what I wrote, was nothing short of mean.
But then one day I learned from a teacher in my graduate program what it meant to be respectful of students. I learned a lesson that he probably did not know that he had taught me, a lesson I remember to this day whenever I am with a student. It was something he did with one hand.
It was mid-morning, and he and I had to meet to discuss a proposal I was working on. He was the chair of the department and was known as a man who expected the best from all of us graduate students, but he was rumored to be a kind man, too. This was not said about many of our professors.
We sat there, he at his desk, and I in a wooden office chair on the other side of the desk. I was nervous. Graduate school was something at which I could not fail. He greeted me politely and then asked a question about the proposal. I was responding when his phone rang. I glanced at it sitting there on the desk and became immediately quiet. I wondered if I should leave his office so he could take the call. It rang again.
He reached over and lifted the receiver so it stopped ringing and then put the receiver back down. He smiled, looked at me, and said, “That call was not important right now. You are.”