Light Bulb in the Toothpaste Aisle

It is a moment every child has to have in order to grow up, a moment that changes her permanently.  It is the moment when a student realizes her teachers do not live at school.

The year was 1994, and my roommates and I had wandered around the cosmetic aisles at one of the two grocery stores in Tahlequah then. I settled on Mango Mango nail polish to celebrate the upcoming breaking of Spring. Lucky enough to attend this relatively small college with several of my good friends from high school, we landed at Northeastern State with a security that all of us were in it together, and we could have more than one Popsicle at a time if we wished. We needed no adjustment time as most homesick freshmen did. Three years into our college experience, we were even closer than I think anyone expected us to be and were living together in what we called The Brown House, whose only positive feature was its walking proximity to campus. It sure wasn’t the wall to wall kitchen carpet.

We turned a corner with our shopping basket, and I almost jerked it to another aisle. Right there was the man who wore a beautiful three piece suit every day and who quoted Shakespearean lines as easily as if he were reading menu items off a chalkboard, the man I eventually took five English classes with over my tenure as an undergraduate, my professor! What? MY professor. He had a life outside of us and not in a classroom? He was buying toothpaste. Toothpaste.

The fact we became friends and he eventually visited my Brown House a few times to see one of the paintings a roommate created did little to assuage my nervousness around a professor who was just…a real person, so I understood why recently, when a student showed up to my office with the proper amount of existential angst for a college freshman, she looked stunned as she surveyed my walls as I took a phone call and she waited on me. She was seeing me for the first time as I truly was. A person. A human with four children, a husband, a coffee pot for those days when caffeine is the only answer, walls of books,  and stacks of paper that will be filed correctly one day but probably not until I retire. I know that look. I saw it in my own reflection in the toothpaste aisle.

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