The Gift of Teachers

Hayden Hollingsworth
Hayden Hollingsworth

Of late, I have been thinking about teachers and what a life-changing role they play. When my alumni journal arrived this past week there was an article about Dr. Sam Spencer, a former president of Davidson College, who died in October. It brought to mind a story about him when I was a freshman and he was Dean of Students.

In those days, if one’s father was a graduate of Davidson and a Presbyterian minister, admission was certain. What happened after matriculation was quite another matter. The student in question, and I have no reason to doubt the truth of his tale, had his life turned around by Dr. Spencer.

He, like most of us, had little idea what he was going to do with his life, but nothing had shown much promise. He was not dumb, but he was incredibly lazy. High school had been endured but with little to qualify him for a college like Davidson except his family connections.

As a freshman, he found himself in Dr. Spencer’s World History class, surrounded by young men who obviously were better prepared for the academic rigors that lay ahead; he was convinced he was out of his depth. He lived with a sense of dread as the first test was scheduled, and when his paper was returned his worst fears were realized. There was no grade, only a note instructing him to see the Dean in his office the next morning.

His recounting of the meeting is memorable. Dr. Spencer, himself a Davidson graduate with graduate degrees from Harvard, was a young professor, but with a command presence that could not be denied. Happily, for the students, this was coupled with a sincere and compassionate concern for his charges.

He greeted the student warmly and then without any hint of condemnation told him that he had not given him a grade because it was one of the worst papers he had ever received. So bad was the performance that he wondered if life at Davidson was beyond his skill, so he had looked up the test scores from orientation.

He sat down beside the student and told him that he was pleased to see that he ranked in the 98th percentile of all college freshmen from across the country. He told him it was obvious that he could succeed but he would have to learn how to study. If improvement occurred, then Dr. Spencer said he would substitute the final exam grade for this miserable performance. In dismissal, he told the chastened student that he had faith he would be successful.

As the semester passed, the student did do better and when the final exam papers were returned, he saw there was again, no grade, only the note to see the Dean the following morning. When the meeting took place, Dr. Spencer put his hand on the nervous shoulder and said, “I knew you could do it. You will get a B+ for the semester.”

At our 50th reunion the story made the rounds and Dr. Spencer, then in his nineties, dismissed the student’s gratitude with, “Oh, you would have made it but you just needed a little support at the beginning.”

None of us, who listened, believed that. Had the Dean not taken the time to look beyond the obvious and offer encouragement the student said he doubted that he would have ever had the belief that he could have succeeded. On that brief encounter he turned a corner that led to a productive life.

Dr. Spencer was 95 when he died, and there is no measuring how his influence shaped so many lives. Under his guidance Davidson produced college presidents, governors, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and a countless host of leaders in their respective professions.

The opportunity to shape the future is nowhere in more evidence than in the influence of a great teacher, whether it be in the early years, or in the highest level graduate education.

In this season of giving, each of us should remember with gratitude the gift of education that we received and be sure that it is passed on to the following generations.

J. Hayden Hollingsworth