Sunday, May 25, 2008

For the Coach

School is over now, the thought of no longer going to class or calling myself a student has sunk in, and I'm almost finished with my thank-you cards. At a moment like this one reflects back to the family and friends that have supported them along the way, whether it be a simple, "How's school going?" or my peers coming up with a way to get me out the house and rescue my sanity. I have been so blessed with so many wonderful people in my life who have helped me along this path. One of them I would like to recognize publicly. Although I gave him a thank-you card about four years ago, I wish I could give one more word of praise and gratitude.
Dr. Kent Van De Graaff had lived an amazing life, one that has impacted thousands of people, including myself. He wrote some of the top-used anatomy textbooks throughout the world, was published in research journals, and guided hundreds, if not thousands, of pre-med students into medical school. He even became a mnemonic for cranial nerves (O-O-O To Touch And Feel Van De Graaff's Very Accessible Hair!) He had his share of adversities in his life: losing both of his parents in his childhood, surviving over three decades after stomach cancer, and the death of his wife from complications of cancer treatment. Such resilience is to be admired. After being rejected for admission from vet school, he decided to pursue a Master degree and chose the education path, teaching zoology and acting as pre-med advisor at schools such as Brigham Young University and then returning to his hometown and alma mater Weber State University.
My first interaction with Dr. V. came when I was a high school senior. I was looking at some of the Utah schools and when I went to visit Weber, he took me in during his lunch break to sit and talk for almost an hour on everything I need to do to prepare for med school and what the school had to offer me in preparing for it. I left his office in amazement and a folder full of handouts. I did decide on Weber and looked forward to my next four years there. His lectures were amazing! He always had interesting points and stories and even some specimens. He welcomed his students to his office anytime. If we were overwhelmed or just feeling down, he offered us some "Damitol" (they were really jellybeans in a jar) and offered to write us a prescription for it if needed. He referred to us as the "Team" and so of course that would make him, "Coach." When I was taking the dissection lab, I realized my project was going to need some time outside of our weekly lab. Every Friday and Monday morning, he would hand me off the extra lab key between classes so I could work on my project over the weekend. He joked one day about our consistency, smiling and said" "We have to stop seeing each other like this." His humor was one-of-a-kind. At the end of that lab he asked me to co-instruct the advanced anatomy lab with another student the next year. Me?? I thought. I was only 20 years old, there's so many other smart and capable students...other reasons why I shouldn't have been asked to teach could go on; but his confidence in me built up my own confidence. He had a way of doing that with so many other students. He showed support for me when I told him I was taking a break from school to go on a mission, telling me that it will be a great experience and will benefit my own teaching. When I came back from my mission, his health was not very good. Having contracted hepatitis from his stomach surgery, his liver was poor and in need of a transplant. He took a sabbatical my last semester of college but he still wrote me an amazing letter of recommendation for PA school, a copy which I still have today. I took a year off to work after that, so I don't know if I ever told him that I made it into PA school. At the end of my first semester of PA school, I got an email that he had passed away. I flew to Utah for the funeral and it was one of the most inspiring moments I ever had. The stories of service and love shared by former students and his family were amazing. My grandfather said that his years at Weber State were his best years of education. I have to say it is the same for me and it is largely due to the influence one teacher had on me.
Many teachers hope to have an impact on the next generation just like Dr. Van De Graaff did to me. Maybe it's those movies and stories like "Dead Poets Society" and "Stand and Deliver" that renews hope and gratitude for the teachers who have impacted our lives. As a daughter and granddaughter of three teachers, I have been raised with an appreciation and respect for them. Five years ago I read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. It's one of the few books that have made me cry, mainly because I have had my own Morrie in my life. There's a quote from it that I want to leave off on that describes Dr. V. and I also wrote it in my last thank-you card to him. Feel free to leave a comment if you agree with it or have had a teacher or other person impact your life in some way.
"Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head."


Nilla said...

This was a lovely memorial to your teacher. That is wonderful. I have had many wonderful teachers throughout my education, though none currently stands out like this professor does for you.

On a random note... I once had a mnemonic for cranial nerves (or so I thought, but was a different order, so maybe not?)... It too started with "oh oh oh to touch and feel" But then the similarities die. And my teacher's mnemonic was not appropriate for posting here. Sigh... But, I can say I've never forgotten it.

Nilla said...

Hey Jennette -- can I add you to my new "blogosphere buddies" blog roll?

Leslie said...

Kent Van De Graaff was one of my very favorite teachers too-- I think about him often when I remember my days at BYU. His teaching of anatomy inspired me to become one of his lab assistants at the age of 19. The summer after my first year of laboratory instruction was hard for me and a friend of mine gave me a paper describing a new product-- DAMITOL! I was so amused by this.

After watching Dr. V pop jelly beans in his mouth during and between classes (due to having his stomach removed, the "gutless wonder" needed a lot of quick sugar I guess) for two years, I decided to secretly surprise him with a fun anonymous gift-- a jar full of jelly beans with the DAMITOL label wrapped carefully around it.

He never knew it was me. No one knew it was me. But it warmed my heart to see it on his desk whenever I visited him.

After graduating from BYU in 1986 and subsequently attending the University of Utah and getting married, the world I knew at BYU became a fun part of my history, with him as the shining influence that guided me to excellence.

I am touched to know that the Damitol tradition continued as he moved from BYU to Weber State. It was natural that he offered his beloved jelly beans to his downtrodden students, because he was a generous man. That it came from a jar that was either the one I gave him, or based on the same idea, humbles me beyond words.

I was saddened to hear of his passing in 2005, and sadder still that I was unable to join others in mourning him. But I will never ever forget that man and the influence he had on me.