Master, mentor, friend of mine

Twenty-four years ago. I know it sounds quite euphemistic, but it really does seem like just yesterday. It was the fall of 1992. I sat with a group of fellow college freshmen and waited for the history professor who would be leading our winter term American History Study Tour to come give us the scoop. I hated history, I said often. I may have even tried to get out of that trip. I was a product of North Carolina’s first ever end of course test in American History, and I had suffered at the hands of a teacher who “instructed” us using filmstrips and a series of pages on a giant flipboard, each one labeled with the corresponding state test objectives. I wasn’t having this trip. In a stubborn reversal of the Apostle Paul’s famous words, my spirit was unwilling, but my flesh had no choice but to get on that bus come January.

I remember quite clearly my incessant grumbling that afternoon, but when Dr. Midgette walked into the room a literal hush fell over it. Her height alone was formidable, but there was something else, something I’ve never, in almost 25 years, been able to fully describe. She immediately commanded the room. We were at attention, fully engaged, and she hadn’t even spoken a word yet. I sat up straighter, stopped fidgeting, put down the pencil I’d been doodling with a few minutes before. At the time I didn’t have the experience to understand the shift in the energy of the room that day, but looking back from my current vantage point, I know it was that we all sensed the presence of a master teacher, plain and simple.

It probably goes without saying that I experienced a historical revival on that trip. Like, a total reversal of beliefs about the subject.  It was The Church of American History, and I was on the front row every time the doors opened, taking in every story, absorbing every experience, kneeling at the altar of Gettysburg and praising the hallowed halls of Philadelphia like the new convert I was. I saw the light and was born again, like Paul on the road to Damascus. When we returned to campus I practically tossed my bags into my room and ran to the registrar’s office to change my spring schedule, and over the next three years I took a class from Dr. Midgette almost every semester. I graduated a few hours short of a history minor, but I left campus that May with something much more valuable. I experienced the very best of both worlds as a teacher candidate at Elon: I was a product of a superior school of education that equipped me pedagogically, theoretically, and practically, and I had the exquisite privilege of taking five courses under one of the finest teachers ever to step before a class at this fine institution.

It wasn’t just that she made me love the study of history. It was how she did it. Her wry sense of humor. Her endless questions, penetrating and thought-provoking, and sometimes seemingly unanswerable. Her stories, told like she had been watching from a distance on the very day the Longstreet assembled Pickett’s Charge. Her sky-high expectations. Her own passion, not just for the material itself, but for teaching it to us, for sparking some passion in our own studies. I would take her example into my own classroom and spend the next 12 years trying to emulate it.

It must be said that I also spent those remaining three years at Elon, and the subsequent 20, showing up outside Dr. Midgette’s office door, asking her opinion on various things both academic and not, and inching my way into her favor and into her life, because I am a relentless teacher’s pet and that is what I do. And she let me, even welcomed me, and that has made more of a difference in my life than she may ever fully realize. Over numerous dinners at Sidetrack (sorry, Root, I’ll never fully accept you), countless rocking chair conversations, so many walks across campus and around the winding roads of Montreat, more Words Against Friends games than I can count, one very long bus ride, and a car trip to Chickamauga, Georgia where she was forever dubbed Momma Driver, I got to know this marvel of a person, and she took the time to know me, and I am as thankful for her guidance and mentoring, her friendship, and her love as I am for her brilliant teaching. Maybe more so, and truthfully, perhaps there is no true difference. I will never stop learning from her, and she will forever be my mentor, my chosen family, and my friend.

When I found out Dr. Midgette had left the classroom several years ago to pursue an administrative role at Elon, I was sad for all the students who would miss out on her classes. When I found out she was retiring I was just sad for me. I thought of all the dinners we haven’t had lately, all the visits that have gotten away from me, all the opportunities born of proximity that will end when she heads up the mountain to Montreat for good this time. I thought of another one of The Apostles, Peter this time, bereft and filled with regret after the grand departure of his great teacher. Jesus left Peter to do work, to carry on the job he’d been selected to do, but I have to wonder if Peter ever just stopped and sighed and missed his friend. In their last conversation on earth, Jesus questions Peter’s devotion three times, and three times Peter, a little more guilt-ridden with each response, pledges his lifelong affection. I once read a Bible scholar’s take on this chat, and he summed it up something like this: Jesus knew Peter’s heart, but he wanted to make sure Peter knew Peter’s heart. He wanted Peter know he was, always and forever, Jesus’s boy through and through. He wanted Peter to understand that there was no denial, no disregard, no ominous rooster’s crow that could separate them.

As Dr. Midgette’s last day on this campus inches closer, I think about the days of quiet she will relish on the porch in Montreat. I think about the trips into Black Mountain, the drives to Asheville for Tourists games, the books she will read, the National Parks whose programs her presence will energize. If I’m being totally honest, I also think about invading that solitude with my noisy kids, and porch swing chats and walks to the creek, and many more games of Words With Friends. I am happy for her as she starts this new chapter, but I am also a little like Peter. I will miss my friend and teacher, and I will keep doing the work I’ve been called to do, but I hope she knows I am, forever and always, her girl through and through.

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