I have some friends much more physically fit than I ever shall be, and their pain tolerance has engendered in me a measure of courage to try some hard things I otherwise would not. Plus my wife patted my belly—which I had developed through many years of reading and writing and sitting at a desk—she patted my belly about the time I turned 40 and said, “You know, this is coming between us.” So among a number of activities of the last decade, I’ve done over the last few years just a bit of trail running. The scenery at Percy Warner Park here in Nashville helps mitigate the mundane pain of jogging.
Which brings me to this: I was chugging up the longest hill on the white trail one recent day, a gloriously beautiful day, proudly jogging up the intimidating incline, refusing to let myself walk, pushing through the discomfort, and fortune smiled upon me. I saw I was going to be able, two-thirds of the way up the incline, to pass two men who were merely walking up the precipitous path. I realized quickly they were themselves younger, apparently more fit, and undoubtedly better looking than me. Fortune then smiled yet again: as I passed, one said, with apparent authentic admiration, “Go man. You’re better than us.”
I turned my gaze away from the path, to receive my well-earned compliment. I said “thank you” with the kind of stupid grin seven year olds have when they’ve done something with which they are pleased. And, I kid you not, a root on the path reached up and grabbed my foot at that precise moment. It swung my whole frame with an unyielding ferocity such that my smiling face was planted in the dirt.
A few months later, I received word that I had received an Outstanding Teacher Award for my university teaching service. I was pleased and proud. I was grateful too, because—I say this in all seriousness—I teach in a community of a host of outstanding teachers, who are also wonderful and intelligent human beings. So, I felt quite honored.
Commencement day came. The reception for graduates was lovely and provided an opportunity to discuss summer plans with colleagues, to say hellos to graduates’ parents, and to say goodbyes to my students. The day is always bittersweet. I’ve sometimes skipped it because it prompts such sadness. I get attached to students whom I admire and grow to love, and then they leave. But this was no day to skip commencement. I was going to be honored. I may be a sentimental fool, but I’m not an idiot.
Having consumed as many mixed nuts and cupcakes and weak punch as the stomach could bear, I glanced at the clock. I had little time to go get on my flowing robe and gown. My academic regalia is the prettiest out of all my colleagues; I graduated from Notre Dame, and Catholics best know how to do pomp and circumstance. My colleague who graduated from St. Louis U., his Catholic robe is nice, too, but Notre Dame’s is better. But it takes time to get that stuff on and look good. Running out of time, I abruptly began walking at a brisk pace toward the open double doors twenty feet ahead. I was suddenly stricken: some great unseen force bodily slapped me, from my head to my knees, the whole of my body throbbing with pain. A deep thud reverberated through the room. Brilliant award-winning University Professor I am, I ran the possible scenarios in the expanses of my intellect, and concluded I had walked at full speed flat into a glass wall.
My fingers clutched at my forehead to stanch the flow of blood. It is one of the perks of being a professor that we do not have to worry too much about wearing nice clothes. The quirkier the better. But that day I had on my very fine, expensive sport coat. (Well, it was expensive originally. I purchased it from the consignment store on 8th Avenue.) So I was all a flutter, not wanting the blood on one of my few nice articles of clothing.
Once the paramedic had tended to me, bandaged me up, and patted me on the head, I made my way proudly into the Arena. I did have to pass the word up and down my row of fellow Ph.D.’s that I needed some tissue, the blood dripping now through the bandage. But it was a small price to pay as I sat patiently for my name to be called. I would not miss my moment.
I was just proud to be there.