KEVIN, A FRIEND FROM grad school, has invited me to speak to one of his classes. I'm wondering, as I drive to campus, what kind of Kevin I'll find. The last time, I thought how strange it was to see a cranky old man living in a 35-year-old man's body.
"You are in your bitter period," I said to him.
"I am disillusioned," he said firmly, as if it were the end of the story.
The academic life was something Kevin had believed in, longed for. He knew, as a lowly student, that if you worked hard enough and survived the intellectual hazing, you could win the prize that would earn you passage into the ranks of royalty: a PhD.
I remember how Kevin almost got swallowed up by that dissertation committee. It took him four years of fighting. And when they finally said, yes, okay, you're in, he didn't feel much like celebrating: He'd been teaching as a temp for 10 years; now he was a temp with a PhD.
The key, he discovered, was getting a real job, a coveted tenure-track position. He got one. But actually, he was only an assistant professor, and the thing to be was an associate professor. You had to fight for that; for three years you had to fight your toughest fight yet.
Then you had to start the fight all over, because actually the real thing to be was a full professor. And what, exactly, did any of this have to do with loving 20th-century British lit? He was forgetting. And the apathy, he was so sick of hearing about the apathy among students. Because he didn't believe it. In fact, if there was apathy at all, it was among the faculty. And he was one of them.
Each time I would visit, I would see a more and more disillusioned Kevin. It got so I didn't want to go.
So now I'm wondering, as I get out of the car and see him approaching, what the heck is going on. What has happened to Kevin? He is standing tall. He is smiling. This is not the Kevin I remember. He seems positively joyful. Has he joined a cult or something? No, it appears he's started one. Some students, perhaps 20, are following him in Pied Piper fashion. He hugs me, introduces me, says these are the newest members of the English honor society. And did I want to come and watch the induction ceremony? "I made lasagna!" he says.
Kevin can't stop talking about the honor society. I've never heard him mention it before. He says that's because it didn't exist. Well, it used to, decades ago. But he got the idea to revive it. "Membership has its privileges," he thought, but not the kind of membership he'd been working toward. The royalty thing, it wasn't enough. He needed a purpose, a much bigger purpose. He couldn't stop thinking about purpose.
He started asking his students about it. He scrapped his old assignments and had his freshman comp class read about honor, about duty, about commitment, and he said: "Apply these ideas in your life." He told each student to come up with a way of "affecting a positive change in your world." It could be as simple as improving study habits, becoming a better family member, or having a healthier lifestyle. It could involve community outreach. "Do it and write about it," he said. It was a semester-long assignment that the students embraced. Because it was different. Because it was fun. Or maybe because they could sense that the teacher was also giving this assignment to himself.
Soon those freshmen were out there volunteering for the Special Olympics, working with hospice programs, collecting toys for disadvantaged kids. Kevin thought: Apathy, schmapathy. Young people just need leaders.
Many of those freshmen went on to join the English honor society, or at least the English club, where you didn't need the academic excellence, just the willingness to participate. Kevin spearheaded it all. He would bring food. At first, it was the food that brought them in. They'd talk about literature, but they'd talk about other things, too. They would talk about the rest of the world. And . . . why wait? Together, they donated time to reading to senior citizens. They tutored illiterate kids. They ran clothing drives for shelters. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, they won a university-wide award for community service.
"And that," says Kevin, "was the best thing that ever happened in my life."
"Oh, Kevin," I say. "You are so out of your bitter period." He laughs. I tell him that heroism at age 40 certainly suits him.
"I'm just part of a group," he says. "A group that has shifted my focus about what my life is about." Because purpose, he discovered, is not something that is handed to you from above, but something you find by reaching back to the ones coming behind you. "They taught me what it means to be in a position of authority," he says. "I couldn't seem to get that from anywhere else."
Then he hits me up for a donation to breast cancer research, and asks if I have any old clothes I want to get rid of.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.