I was poking around on EphBlog looking for something, when I realized I’d never really looked at the Ephblog Quote Wall. Looking over it, I saw this:

In some respects what we say may never matter, yet history has proven time and again that there are sometimes cases where one voice has made a difference. The most successful of these though were always the ones who were compassionate in their cause and careful with their words. — M. Esa Seeglum ’06

I’ll be honest that I have no idea what inspired this quote or who the author is (the link on the page was broken). But it lead me to reflect on my time at Williams and some of those who had inspired me. It also made me contemplate Larry’s suggestion that we might discuss people at Williams that had great influence on us, be it professors, fellow students, townsfolk, staff, or otherwise. I suppose this could be for the better or for the worse, but I’m hoping better. For any recently admitted students who have stumbled upon us, I hope this can give you a flavor of why we Eph Alums are so involved (sometimes overly so) in our alma mater. As you can see from this blog, our fierce loyalty involves sometimes equally fierce criticism because we want Williams to continue to improve. But I think it is safe to say that Williams has had a great impact on the lot of us, and it is good to periodically step back and remember why.

For me, there are quite a few people who had great influence on me, but I’ll start with one here. Professor Bill Darrow, Chair of the Religion Department and all-around great guy. Of course, he is a brilliant professor, but I had a number of brilliant professors at Williams. There was something extra in the way he managed to welcome students to explore complex questions, to challenge us and yet make us feel “safe” in some way to do it. He taught tutorials in his cramped office in the Stetson maze with books surrounding you on all sides, wearing what can only be described as “Cosby sweaters.” He was like a caring uncle or grandparent – but a really, really smart one. For those of you out there who know him, you’ll also recall his particular manner of speaking where his voice dropped when he made a point and how he would kind of look upward as he reached for words sometimes.

I came to Williams as a little overachiever, as most of us did. I didn’t do so well in my first Religion class – at least for me – and my confidence was shaken. Indeed, my first semester grades were my worst by far at Williams. But I was lucky enough to have Prof. Darrow as my advisor. He was encouraging, gently pushing me to still take his 300-level tutorial as a freshman the way I had originally planned (coming in, I had quite big plans for myself). What possessed me to think I could handle it, I don’t know. What possessed him to encourage me to keep going with it, I don’t know that either. It was remarkable. I was challenged every week, struggling with texts that I only partially understood, trying to put together a 10-15 page paper or critique another student’s each week, and I’m sure looking like a complete idiot. But it was one of the most valuable experiences of my time at Williams. I got through it, proved to myself I could stack up with other students despite the immense self-doubt I was feeling at the time. It also lead me to major in Religion, the subject where I, on average, had some of my lowest grades. But Professor Darrow convinced me that was okay, he was one of the first people to help me realize the value of just thinking, and thinking hard about things. There didn’t have to be a problem to solve, the pursuit itself was worthy – and the grades, while important, were not the best judge of a successful course.

I stuck with it, and “Papa D” continued to challenge me, and comfort me, through my time at Williams. During our senior major seminar for religion, the group of 10-12 of us spent Wednesday afternoons together at the top of Hopkins Hall discussing birth and death (yes, the actual topic of the seminar), and often staying late after class still discussing the issues. We also managed to use the Sixth Sense, Bladerunner, and the Neverending Story in our presentations in that class, showing the sense of humor he also exhibited toward us! He encouraged us to gather for lunch beforehand (and came to my co-op once for it, to my great thrill), to continue these discussions, to explore the flights of ideas hatched in the mind of 21-year-olds late in the afternoon.

It was his office I cried in the spring of my junior year when everything seemed for the moment to be falling apart around me. I was trying to serve on the JASC, had a suicidal first-year in my entry, a paper due in his class and another, some other student-activity related issue happening, and it was the first anniverary of an old friend’s death. I went in to ask for an extension on the paper (which he always gave to anyone), and ended up spending part of the afternoon there with him, the stacks of books, and a box of kleenex. He probably doesn’t even remember it, but his compassion reflected all that was good about the close student-faculty relationship at Williams to me.

I had the good fortune to serve as his TA in my final semester. When we talked about the job, he mentioned the value he saw in going back to those texts from Religion 101, the ones that he knew had given me so much trouble at the beginning. It was a way to complete the circle of my time at Williams. He actually thought about things like that – the full cycle of education and growth, and how it impacted his students.

Going forward in my life, I have sought to model that combination of encouragement and support – with a little push to challenge oneself. I also have to pause sometimes and remember the value of things that aren’t so task-oriented. Reading important books and thinking important thoughts are good things. So there is my (somewhat sappy) anecdote for you all about someone at Williams who influenced me. I hope that others will add their own posts in the commentary. And if you don’t, I’ll be forced to add more of my own!

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