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A Missed Opportunity

Mar 08, 2017 10:50AM ● By Elizabeth Hesterly

Years ago I heard a story about a college professor. He was a veteran teacher, one who typically taught advanced level classes, having moved beyond introductory surveys filled with freshmen. But because of a scheduling necessity, this professor found himself once again teaching newbies, green and immature first year students who noisily arrived in the lecture hall.

This professor, shocked by the unruly and inattentive crowd in his class, focused on an older student who sat on the back row. She listened. She took notes. She faithfully attended and always arrived on time. Though most of the other students seemed distracted and unappreciative of his knowledge, she was plugged in. He decided to teach as though she were the only student in the class. It was a way to stay focused on the positive. He thought of her as a grandmotherly type, and she would be his anchor for that hour three times a week.

Near the end of the semester, he noticed her absence. It didn’t overly concern him until she missed another class and then another. When she did not show up for the final exam, he expressed concern to the university registrar. To his utter shock and sadness, he learned of her death.

This professor cried with a deep and lasting sorrow. He did not know the student, in fact had never spoken to her, but he had relied on her as a stalwart figure in that disruptive classroom setting. He had come to the realization that even one willing student in a group of loud first years was enough to motivate him to do his job well.

Yet when he learned of her untimely death, he felt haunted. He had never told her that her dedicated presence had made the otherwise unpleasant class manageable. He had never acknowledged her attention. He had never thanked her. They had never exchanged a word. The regret overcame him. What he mourned was a missed opportunity.

I’m often reminded of this story. I heard it over 25 years ago, but I use it often in my assessment of the world. I’ve got to be more aware. I’ve got to be willing to say affirming things, even to people I don’t know. I need to look for chances to say something kind, to express appreciation, to speak into existence an affirming sentiment.

Regret is a heavy burden. I live with regret; perhaps you do as well. But I can actively seek ways to diminish this heaviness piling up in my memory’s storage units. I can be more observant. I can listen at a higher level. I can visit that person in need or send an encouraging message or try a little harder to be gentle and kind. I can minimize regret by watching out for others, by being a good friend, by being less selfish.

Missed opportunities in my life? Oh yeah. But the story of the professor makes me pause. Slow down, Elizabeth, and notice that person on the back row, and then say hello.


Elizabeth O'Roark Hesterly was born and raised in Lafayette. She is a graduate of Acadiana High School and LSU, is too serious for her own good, admires loyalty and faithfulness, and strives for both.

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