Teachers, students, and their interdependence

Let me tell you a true story. A long time ago, when I was in high school, I really loved French. For some reason that I do not fully understand today, one of my favorite authors was Honoré de Balzac. One day during my sophomore year, our regular French teacher, a young lady with whom all of us boys were in love, had to miss class. She was replaced by another teacher from our school, professor Cornea. He was probably in his late 50s, and he had the reputation of a tough one. He came to class, threw the large register with our grades on his desk, and told all of us with what I then considered to be a despising attitude to get our notebooks and do some exercises from the textbook. He acted as if we were not worthy of his attention, as if we were all some rascals who, being in mathematics and physics (there are majors in high school in Romania), don’t understand the high value of French literature and language. He did not talk to us once during class, and he left in the same manner. A dead teacher, as I thought at that moment.

A couple of years after this episode, when I was about to become a senior, my mom thought I should take private lessons with a tutor in French. My love for the French language and culture had remained the same, and my dream was to go study in Paris (and perhaps meet Emil Cioran). My mom told me that she would speak with Professor Cornea, the one who was a sub a couple of years before. I implored my mom to not send me to him, telling her that he was a bad teacher, but my mom knew that he was the best teacher in town. “You’ll go to him because I know what a good teacher means.” And, where I am from (both temporally and geographically), if your mom tells you to do something, regardless of whether you want it or not, you do it. So I went. To my surprise, professor Cornea was completely different. He worked with us (there were two other students in my group) relentlessly and beyond the hour per week for which he was paid. Seeing my love for literature, he talked to me about books. He gave me Gabriel Liiceanu’s The Paltinis Diary, which strengthened my resolve to study philosophy. And he became not only my mentor, but also my friend. One day, I gave him something I wrote, some sort of “philosophical diary,” and he called me the next morning at 7:00 am to just tell me that he enjoyed it and that we need to talk. A phone call like that can make the year, not only the day, of a student in high school.

From time to time I wondered why there was this difference between the professor I met at school and the one at home, during private tutoring sessions. I did not have an answer before I started teaching myself. I then realized that if the professor who came in my classroom when I was a sophomore was dead, if there was no life in him as a professor, it was because I had murdered him. I and others like me, who may have perceived him as their enemy and may have had a complete lack of interest in their education. After years and years of encountering students who did not seem to care, professor Cornea may have become cynical. Slowly, the energy and life with which he probably began his teaching career faded away. At home, in the private sessions, he knew that I was there because I wanted to be there, because I cared, and my presupposed love for what I was to become nourished him and gave him the power to offer his best.We often forget that education is an encounter between two individuals who love a third: the student as he or she will be after the educational encounter. And in the absence of this care, which paradoxically nourishes both student and teacher, each one of them fades away and becomes in time the “murderer” of the other. If my experience with professor Cornea had remained the one I had that day at school, I may have completely missed encountering a person. And if it had repeated itself, he may have destroyed in me the love I had for French, in the same way in which we, students, may have destroyed in him the hope that his education was meaningful. When the love for the outcome of any educational encounter is absent, when the love for the new person about to be born in spirit is absent, students and teachers become people who extinguish the being of the other. Professor Cornea, who is no longer among us but who is always alive in my heart, taught me about the vulnerability we all have in the absence of care; he also taught me that the well being of each of us depends on the other, and that if I have a “bad student” or a “bad teacher” I need to first ask myself about the responsibility I have for it.

Professor Cornea often invited me for walks in the Fagaras country side, where we spent time discussing French literature and Romanian philosophy.


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