Monday, September 17, 2007

Dedication to a Teacher

by Joyce DiPastena

When I first handed a copy of my book, Loyalty’s Web, to my sister, she flipped to the dedication, pleased to see our parents listed there, then said in a puzzled voice:

“Who’s Dr. Thomas Parker, and why did you also dedicate your book to him?”

Dr. Parker, as I say in my dedication, was a “professor of Medieval History at the University of Arizona, who with passion and wit, fed my history-hungry soul.”

If I ever loved a professor during my college years, it was Dr. Thomas Parker. Probably already nearing retirement age when I first encountered him, he was a relatively short man, with a stocky build and graying hair. Wire-rimmed glasses sat on the nose of his rather square face. He became more familiar to me than any of my other professors, because of the multiple classes I took from him…History of Western Civilization (Part A), Medieval England, Medieval Europe…I think there were one or two more, but I can’t remember the titles anymore.

Dr. Parker lectured at the speed of light. I could barely keep up with him in my notes, and only because I learned to leave all the articles (“the”, “an”, etc) and vowels out of my words. (Made for some interesting deciphering around exam time.)

He held a deep respect for his students and their time. Unlike other professors, who might take weeks or even months to grade an essay or exam, if you turned in an essay or book report or test on a Friday, Dr. Parker had them graded and handed them back to you on Monday. He said if his students could turn in their work on time, then the least he could do is spend his weekend grading them and return them in a timely manner.

His love for his subject constantly shone through. Occasionally he’d have a grudge with a particular historical figure. I remember in at least all three of the above-named classes, somehow St. Bernard of Clairvaux came up. Dr. Parker’s voice always deepened to a growl when he spoke of Bernard’s intolerance and arrogance. Yet oddly, there was always a twinkle in the blue eyes behind the glasses while he growled. Did he bear a reluctant, unspoken respect for Bernard? Or had he simply developed a kind of affection even for the “villains” of the era he had devoted his teaching career to…much as an author might develop a love-hate relationship with the “villain” she creates for a book?

When I was growing up, the public school system was a sad wasteland for information about the Middle Ages. The time period had always intrigued me, and I became particularly interested in it during my high school years. (Mostly through reading the World Book Encyclopedia and Thomas B. Costain’s series on the Plantagenets.) After this long dearth of being left mostly on my own to scrabble crumbs of information on the subject where I could, Dr. Parker made the era come alive for me. As I said in my dedication, he “fed my history-hungry soul”, and he did it with an infectious passion for his subject, and with humor and wit that left my spirits soaring when I walked away at the end of a lecture. When I began studying for a master’s of library science at the end of my bachelor degree studies, I actually found myself feeling “homesick” for Dr. Parker’s classes!

Sadly, he never knew how much I enjoyed his classes, how much I respected and appreciated him. Why? Because I was so excruciatingly shy in those days, that I never had the courage to walk up to him and tell him, “Thank you.” Far too many years later, I tried to track him down. I obtained a retirement address for him from the University of Arizona, and wrote him a letter, belatedly expressing my deep gratitude for the gift he had given me. The letter was returned, “Address Unknown.” It is quite possible that he has passed away after all these years, and my gratitude comes too late.

I hope that in the “next life”, I will have an opportunity to see him again, and that this time I will have the courage to express what’s in my heart. Without all that he taught me, and the love with which he taught it, I may well never have written Loyalty’s Web, or any of it’s prequels and sequels. And so, until that day comes, I dedicate my first published book to the teacher who opened the vistas of medieval history to me, with passion, wit, and a twinkle in his eye.

4 comments:

  1. Wow does your entry bring back memories for me. I loved those Costains' books. I've read everything I could find on medieval times. Probably why I like fantasy so much, it's generaly set in that world. I studied history and adored that time period. Thanks for bringing back those wonderful memories and let me see somewhere I ought to have those books around....

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  2. What a wonderful tribute! I have come to learn that mentors are essential to education and unfortunately, all too few of them exist nowdays.It is one of the things I love about ANWA...all my mentors!

    great blog, Joyce!

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  3. I think Dr. Parker probably knew that you enjoyed his classes, and 'ate up' all he said. Even a shy, quiet student cannot keep the glow from her face and eyes. Also, your papers undoubtedly showed your interest, and how well you absorbed his teachings. Besides, not many would take more classes from a tea cher they didn't like.

    Yes, it would have been a bit more fulfilling to be able to tell him in so many words, but he knows.

    I've had a few teachers I wish I had thanked, also. But it's never 'too late'. There's a whole eternity in which to find and thank.

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  4. Dr. Thomas Parker was the most brilliant teacher I have ever had. I attended the University of Arizona from 1970 to 1972, dropped out, served in the U.S. Navy, and returned to complete my history undergraduate degree from 1979 to 1980.

    In my first year at the U of A, I took Ancient History from Dr. Parker. Every class was entertaining and informative. He handled every question with good humor and made a habit of presenting at least one question of his own to each student each week. He cared about each student and wanted each one to participate and learn. Dr. Parker required a short paper from each student, took the time to discuss the topic, and graded the assignments rapidly and fairly.

    When I returned in 1979, Dr. Parker went to an American History class that I was having with another professor, and welcomed me back. He had seen my name on the list of history majors, remembered me, and sought me out. It was the kindest, most thoughtful gesture that any teacher ever did for me. I took one one more class from Dr. Parker, this time on Medieval History. To my eternal regret, I did not come back to visit him after I graduate, to let him know that I finished both a law degree and a Ph.D. in American History. I know that he would have liked the dropout finally doing well in school.

    I heard a rumor that he died in Tucson a couple of years ago. He was a remarkable, warm-hearted, smart, imaginative, and inspiring man. I treasure his memory.

    All the best. Dave Abney. Phoenix, Arizona. December 24, 2010.

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