15 January, 2013

Does Size Matter?

I like lighthouses. Always have. You could even say I have a passion for lighthouses. I would.

I grew up not far from two and visited them often as I grew up, especially the older one, which was open and climbable. It was a good place to find a bit of solitude, and lighthouses quickly became important to me. I have travelled out of my way to see and photograph dozens of them. One wall of my office is covered with framed images of them. I have a shelf filled with miniatures of some of my favorites. Friends mail me postcards of lighthouses they've seen and give me stamps, books, and all manner of knickknack related to lighthouses. I've even given public lectures on lighthouses.

It may not sound like it, but I am selective. Having grown up near the ocean, I have a preference for the large "landfall" lights, especially those of the east coast. And yes, size matters. The earth is curved, and the taller the lighthouse, the further out to sea you can be and still see it - important if you're about to bump into North America (make "landfall") or sail among the dangerous shoals which extend about ten miles into the Atlantic from Cape Hatteras.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is my favorite, and she shines about 200 feet above sea level. At that height the light is easily visible from 25 miles out to sea. The structure is the tallest light in the US and the 23rd tallest in the world, and I watched them move it a half-mile inland over a decade ago. There is a lot to admire.

But such facts are not what it's all about. It's the symbolism of a lighthouse that I love. There it stands, alone and resolute, as a beacon of help for souls in perilous circumstance. Isn't that what we all want when we're feeling lost or in danger or searching for salvation - something or someone to show us the way, to remind us that there are places and spaces of security waiting for us?

I respect its ability to weather all manner of storm, and I like that its height draws our vision upward into the skies, another reminder to hold our head up in spite of unpleasant times that may try to pull it down.

I like lighthouses, but I positively love the inspiration they offer.

It seems to me that as a teacher, I am a lighthouse – at least for those who need one. A couple of years ago an alumnus from decades ago wrote: “I am honest when I say that I have a lot of great things to be thankful for in my life … [and] … you are without a doubt one of them. You had a profound impact on me and who I am (probably more than you will ever know). So just multiply that by the number of students you've had and friends you've known over the years since. Even if you only touched 1% of them [as] you did me, that's an AMAZING number of people. That’s an amazing number of very lucky people.”

I remember this student very well. He was intelligent enough to have been self-educating, but he needed a lighthouse. I’m glad I was there.

When I was student, there were a few special professors who were my lighthouses. So when I look around my office at those varied images of lighthouses, I am looking at reminders of what I always hoped to be as a professor. In 16 months, I shall retire from teaching - after 40 years. I'll be a most happy man if I did, in fact, help just 1% of my students as I did this student.