My text to Jeanne at 6:37 AM, Thursday April 25:
This is promising to be a very taxing day. Big Bird had better show up.
The people who know me best, and even those who don’t know me that well, are aware that by nature I am incurably optimistic. It takes a lot for me to go negative. I’m also not in the habit of giving the Holy Spirit ultimatums, although my father did it all the time. So what’s the deal with this text? Let me explain.
Last Thursday was day six after Freshman registration day for the fall semester. Shepherding nine hundred freshmen into eight faculty teams and sixty-four seminar sections when every student is seeking to (a) schedule every class between ten and two, (b) avoid every faculty team with a professor with the reputation of being a “hard grader” (there aren’t any such teams), and (c) understand why they can’t get exactly what they want from the relevant authority figure in the same manner as they have ever since they were born—this is not easy. Or fun. These are the days that try a program director’s soul. Hundreds of emails begging for, nay demanding, overenrollment were topped off by the most disrespectful and obnoxious email I’ve received from a student in a decade, charmingly concluded with a “Respectfully Yours” at the end. And on Thursday morning there were a dozen more to deal with by 7:00 AM.
But wait–that’s not all. Out of the blue on Wednesday night I was made aware by a member of a current faculty team teaching in my program of a problem on the team that threatened to be very volatile. Upon receiving a second email early Thursday morning from another member of the same team cryptically asking for a meeting as soon as possible, I suspected and prepared for the worst as I headed for work and separate meetings with both colleagues.
But wait–that’s not all. I had decided to delay my usual Thursday morning blog post until Friday morning, because I thought my planned post was mediocre, at best. I worked on it a bit Wednesday night and scheduled it to be released at 7:00 on Friday morning, planning to squeeze in a few moments of improvement somewhere during the day on Thursday. But how was I going to do that, when I was way behind on grading a pile of thirty-eight paper because of spending so many hours dealing with crabby students wanting overenrollment? All this was weighing me down as I texted Jeanne that Big Bird had better show up.
Jeanne’s text back to me at 6:39 AM, Thursday, April 25:
He has and will. Don’t project. Invite him into ur day now. Tell him I’ll see him later.
Whatever, I thought, as I texted back I’ll call u this evening. Forgot to charge my phone and it’s almost dead. As if to confirm my lack of conviction concerning Big Bird’s caring about my day, I opened my email to find, first, that two of the most important people intending to attend a conference on campus Friday and Saturday that I’m hosting can’t come because one of them has food poisoning; between them, these two colleagues were scheduled to comment on five of the twelve papers being presented. Second, that my mediocre post scheduled for release on Friday at 7:00 AM had just been released into the world today at 7:00 AM because I apparently did not know the difference between April 25 and April 26 when scheduling it for release last night. SHIT!! I thought (or yelled) as I prepared for a crappy day.
First up was the meeting with member number 1 of the problematic faculty team. Having already figured out what the problem almost certainly was, I prepared for the worst. As it turned out, I was completely wrong. The real problem was a serious one, but as I talked with colleague 1, followed by a conversation with colleague 2 a couple of hours later, a crystal clear path toward resolution emerged, shaped by the honesty and professionalism of my two colleagues. As I breathed a sigh of relief—“That could have been a lot worse”—I checked my blog stats to see what damage my less-than-stellar post was causing. Imagine my surprise when, at 9:30 in the morning, I already had 30 visits coming in from four different countries. 30 posts is my bottom line for a good day—to have that many hits already, especially on a post I didn’t even like very much, was an unexpected bit of light in a still gray day. Literally—I forgot to add earlier that another lovely part of the beginning of the day was gray and drizzly in the forties.
My classroom responsibilities for the day were sitting in the back in two different classes that I team-teach with two faculty pairs as one of my colleagues lectured. First I heard a colleague with whom I have taught for seven or eight years do a set-up class on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which we would be focusing on in seminars the following week. Because of my long experience with this colleague, I knew what a great teacher he is. But on Thursday he was on a roll of the sort that is rare even for the best teachers. He was funny, he was insightful, he seamlessly moved from conversation to lecture to PowerPoint to film clip in a tour de force that reminded me—since I needed reminding that day—that there is nothing better than a classroom filled with the electric energy of learning.
As I stepped out of the building after class, I was greeted by brilliant sunshine. The gray morning had turned into a cloudless midday. In the forty-five minutes between the end of that class and the beginning of the next one, I (of course) checked my blog stats again. In comparison to anything I’ve ever seen on my blog in the eight months of its existence, my mediocre post was going viral. Five new people had signed up to follow it that morning (one or two new follower in a week is normal), the number of hits for the day was approaching 100 (already the second biggest day in the history of my blog), one of my colleagues had shared the post with her Facebook friends, opening the blog up to hundreds of people who have never seen it before—and it wasn’t even supposed to have gone public until the next day! A possibility began to slowly dawn in the back of my mind, but I had to run to my next class.
This time I was treated to a lecture by a new, young colleague in only her second year at the college. The class was focused on Juana de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century polymath Mexican nun (don’t worry—I had never heard of her either). Look her up—she’s a fascinating figure. More fascinating to me, though, was my colleague’s performance. As I appreciated the depth of the knowledge of her subject, her passion, her ability to seamlessly tie the content to my lecture two days earlier on Descartes as well as material from early in the semester, I put my notebook down and smiled. “A Mexican nun who wrote poetry, did science experiments, and was a master chef in conversation with a French philosopher and mathematician,” I thought. “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Back to my blog, of course, right after class. I now had 140+ hits, making Thursday the best day in the history of my blog and the week, with three days still to go, my best week ever in the blogosphere. Just six hours since going public, this mediocre post was now the most looked-at post I had every submitted. More new followers, positive comments flying everywhere—I knew for sure now what was going on. Then as I walked out of the building on the way to my other office for office hours, I heard one of my favorite sounds—a cardinal chirping. Cardinals are my favorite bird, next to penguins, and I had only heard one cardinal and seen none thus far this spring. Crossing the road in the direction of the sound, I heard another, then another. On the bottom branch of a huge oak tree were three cardinals, less than ten feet above my head, two males and a female, serenading me. I began to laugh, looked in the direction of Big Bird (usually up and to the left) and said “Okay, I get it!! You showed up big time!! Thanks!!” and off I went. I almost expected to find a dozen penguins walking down the road.
And so it goes. I ended up with 193 hits on my blog that day from eleven different countries, exceeding my previous record by more than fifty. My workload did not magically decrease—I’m still behind in my papers, I’m still getting requests for overenrollment, I still had a conference to run. Nothing had changed, but everything had changed because the divine broke through my very human defenses. I’ll remember April 25 as the day that Big Bird made a visit; I’ll try to remember that Big Bird actually visits every day, if I just know where to look.