Paying it Forward

Twenty-mumble years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colorado, taking my first paleontology class, something happened that was humorous, but also touching, and has stuck with me ever since.

The instructor for the class was Dr. Doug Brew. He was a paleontologist that specialized in brachiopods. I loved this class, naturally because it was paleontology, but also because Dr. Brew was one of the most ‘human’ professors I had ever had.

The class was first thing in the morning. I typically arrived for class a little early, giving myself enough time to stop at the little cart near the door to pick up a cup of coffee before going in. On this morning I was running late, so I passed on the coffee and entered the classroom a little late. I sat down and scrambled to open my notebook to get started.

Dr. Brew stopped lecturing, and asked me where my coffee was. I was never there without coffee.

I told him I didn’t stop because I was late. With a smile, he instructed me to go out and get some coffee.

Then I told him I didn’t have money anyway, so he handed me some change. He didn’t want me falling asleep in class. He knew I couldn’t function without my coffee. (Some things haven’t changed.)

This episode has brought a smile to my face every time thought about it for the last twenty-mumble years. It may seem trivial, but it meant a lot to me that one professor would not only have paid close enough attention to know what my typical habits were, but that he accepted them for what they were and would indulge them.

Today, I stood in front of my class with my trusty coffee mug, and began to teach. A few times this semester, I’ve advised the class that I was teaching with decaf coffee (always a mistake). A student asked me if today’s mug was decaf and I proudly announced that I had made a full pot just for class.

One of my students bemoaned the fact that he was tired and that he would sure love to have a cup too. Well, there was the rest of the pot still in the lounge. Despite the fact that class had started, I sent him off to get some coffee. A second student joined him. I waited to get going on the content of the lecture until the students came back.

While we were waiting, it remembered Dr. Brew’s indulgence so many years before, probably before any of the students in my class were even born.

I wonder if one day they’ll remember that time their professor held up class so that they could grab a cup of coffee? Maybe they’ll pay it forward. Who knows, but I’ll never forget when I got my cup that one morning. It sure made a big impact on me.

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