School starts this week, and I find myself going through the old rituals as I prepare for a new a term. Syllabuses must be edited. Reading assignments must be double-checked. Excuses must be made for why I didn’t write my magnum opus. However, this year as I prepare for the fall, I find myself thinking about why I got into this business of teaching college-level history. I didn’t get a PhD in history for the money and fame, rather I was inspired by my Western Civilization professor, Abraham Attrep.
Everyone who took Dr. Attrep’s class came away with a story. Every morning by about a quarter after eight, his pants were covered with chalk dust. He was a bit eccentric, and, by the time I got to him, he was more than a bit deaf. Sometimes his hearing aid would squeal, and when it did he hardly ever noticed, even though we students would squirm uncomfortably. Sometimes he would have trouble gauging the loudness of his own voice, and a lecture that had been conducted sotto voce might suddenly reach a crescendo. He’d often let us out of class a few minutes early, if we answered his questions correctly, but he couldn’t always hear our answers and merely assumed we were correct. We sometimes got out of class early for faulty answers disguised by faulty hearing.
While his personal mannerisms made him a charming professor, his love of history left an indelible mark on me. I remember many of my college professors, but I don’t remember many individual lectures. However, sixteen years later I still remember some of Dr. Attrep’s lectures. The man loved history, and that love was contagious. All of us have certain key events that we mark as life changing. Listening to Dr. Attrep explain Plato’s theory of the Forms was one of those moments for me. I remember listening to him in awe, both of the man and the topic. And I’m not the only one. I’ve talked to a number of his former students who agree that that particular lecture was especially memorable.
But he wasn’t merely passionate about history; he cared about his students. Dr. Attrep seemed to view his relationship with students as a calling, an increasingly rare attitude in big state universities. One day I went by his office to pick up my exam. He asked me to sit, and he told me that it was a fairly good exam but that I had done poorly on the section taken from the reading assignment. I responded that I hadn’t read the assignment because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. Dr. Attrep brought his hands to his face and laid his forehead on his desk. Then he looked up at me with old, sad eyes and asked if he could lend me his copy. I declined, saying I could borrow a friend’s, but I left that office knowing that he cared. A few years later, my younger brother sent him a note thanking him for a letter of reference, and in the note my brother thanked him for all that he had taught him. Dr. Attrep wrote back and said that any good that he had done, Christ had done through him.
Abraham Attrep passed away April 29, 2012. His days of teaching Western Civilization are over, but now, in a way, he’s teaching through me. I have three sections of Western Civilization this semester, and though I won’t have chalk dust on my pants, I’ll say some of the same things he said to me sixteen years ago. My lecture on Plato’s Forms, however, is just a shadow on the wall compared to his. But I pray that in time I might manifest some of the same divinely inspired passion and compassion that he showed me.