I’m a cancer survivor. My doctors still shake their heads in amazement. I’m not supposed to be here. But God had other plans—and in October, my wife, Sharon, and I will celebrate six years of remission.
Having cancer changed how I look at life. It left me with a sense of urgency. It even changed what I did for a living.
For some time, I’d been pursuing a career in college administration. But sitting in a chemo infusion room every three weeks for a year prompted me to reflect on a lot of things—including my career. And after some long talks with Sharon and my oncologist, I retired from administration so I could return to the classroom. God made me a teacher. It’s what I love.
I’d forgotten, though, the peaks and valleys of teaching. I had forgotten that the classroom is both exhilarating and discouraging. I had forgotten what a roller coaster ride it can be.
Some of my students dread my required classes. They fear not only failing my class, but also failing themselves and all those who believe in them. For other students, my classes are merely an unwelcome obstacle standing in the way of their diploma. And I’d forgotten that some students, even the better ones, don’t always read the assignments. A colleague from another university says, “You can assign all you want, they aren’t going to read it.”
I recall the first time I was faced with a significant instance of student apathy that resulted in several F’s (a long time ago when I was a graduate teaching assistant). I sat in my mentor’s office with my head down, feeling like a failure. “Did you really think you could save them all?” he asked. “Yes,” I said.
The truth is, I still hope to inspire all of my students. But, realistically, I know that there are some I won’t connect with. I recall an honors class (not this semester!) when a student came with a drop slip. I was surprised because she was such an excellent student, and I loved having her in the class. When I asked her why she was dropping, she said, “I don’t like the class—It’s just not working for me.”
I also know that there are students who will fall away and who will fail. But I am still hopeful and I truly believe that, more often than not, students are looking for an excuse to succeed—they are looking for someone to inspire them.
I think my expectations are probably more realistic now. But they’re still high. For me. For my students.
And I hope my sense of urgency rubs off on them.
When you live on this side of cancer, there’s so much more at stake it seems. Life is fragile. Not one of us is guaranteed tomorrow. And I have my students for a semester—just 15 weeks. A mist. A vapor. So much like life. What will they take away from this experience, I wonder—intellectually and spiritually?
In a mere 15 weeks, how can I teach them to write skillfully and read diligently and think critically? How can I reveal to them that the discipline of faith and the discipline of learning and scholarship intersect in a profound and rational way? And how can I model for them a life built on Jesus and His love and grace? So little time.
My wife and I pray and trust that my remission is permanent—that the cancer never returns. But I still look behind me—over my shoulder. And sometimes I think I can hear it—walking fast, with a purpose, coming to overtake me. That urgency is never far from me.
And so I teach. And I invest in the lives of my students. And I pray that something sticks along the way. Even if it is just my attitude—my love for Jesus, my love for my discipline, my love for students, and my conviction that one class can make a difference.
15 weeks—just a vapor. But this reality forces me to live in the present—to treasure each day—each class with my students.
So I live with a sense of urgency—in all areas of my life—as a believer and husband and teacher.
I know God still does miracles. He is doing one in my life. I pray He does one in my classroom.
“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine...” (Ephesians 3:20a).