The last time I saw him he looked old. Although I recognized his eyes and his smile, his countenance disturbed me. His stooped frame was supported by a cane, and he shuffled a bit as he ambled down the path toward me. I knew then that he was in his last season. I thought back to a time when we were both younger, more active, sharing interests and endeavors, even though a generation separated us. We were both teachers, but he was extraordinary in his ability to anticipate students’ thoughts and needs.
I remember asking him long ago for the secret to becoming a good teacher and mentor. He put his arm around me and said, “Transform.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
He explained: “The main struggle in life and work is how to evolve. You cannot gain knowledge without a profound modification in your being.” He thought all teachers and mentors needed spirituality because it “links knowledge, the activity of knowing and the conditions and the effects of this activity, to a transformation of your being.”
I remembered being dumbfounded by such commentaries that seemed to appear out of the intellectual ether that surrounded him. His piercing eyes stared at me through those round glasses as he waited for an acknowledgment that I understood. At times, those piercing eyes gave away his disappointment when the lost look on my face corroborated my ignorance of what he thought was obvious. However, he never shamed or belittled me.
That day, I met him at the end of the path and shook his hand. It had a frailty that frightened me, not of him, but of what time will do to us all. I could tell that he sensed my pause.
“How have you been?” I asked.
He dropped my hand, gave me a big hug, and said, “I have been transforming.”
I felt acutely embarrassed that after years of teaching and mentoring, my perceptive abilities and intellectual acuity lagged so far behind his. His short retort made me realize that I needed to reassess my evolution as a teacher and mentor. He made me aware of this deficiency with only a hug and grin. After all, that is what a good mentor and teacher does—he or she causes you to recognize an inadequacy in yourself, in effect allowing you to right yourself, without shame or harsh words, much like a parent would.
Now, time and infirmity have placed him in the past; he no longer mentors or teaches students. But I remain in the present, still a student of his yet also with students of my own, trying to understand my place and responsibility in the succession of students who become teachers. Socrates once told his student Alcibiades: “Pay some attention. Reflect a bit on what you are. Look at the education you have received. You will do well to know yourself a little better.” We all should follow Socrates’ instructions, which would have pleased my mentor.
As the years pass, we should reflect from time to time on the interactions, events, and people that make a difference in our careers and personal lives. I pay homage to an intellectual benefactor, who shall remain anonymous, but who is easily recognizable if you just take a moment to pause and remember.
Thomas J. Papadimos, MD, MPH
Dr. Papadimos is vice chair for academic affairs
and professor, Department of Anesthesiology, Ohio
State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus,
Ohio; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.