Life has a random, ironic and amusing way of playing out. For the past 16 years, my teaching career has primarily consisted of teaching seniors. These 17-18 years old spend senior year jumping headfirst into the hills and valleys of figuring out what happens after high school. Twenty-five years ago my college search was neither strategic or planned in fact I’m not sure if there was any point in my life where I was less dialed in then senior year of high school. I assumed I was going somewhere for college but really had no opinion about it. I’m pretty sure my parents grounded me one weekend in the fall of 1992 and made me apply to two colleges, Longwood and Radford. Longwood sent me the slim envelope of rejection and Radford accepted. My last semester of high school was focused on chasing girls and pretending I was cooler than shit. I have a vivid memory of being nervous as I waited in line to receive my actual diploma after the graduation ceremony knowing I might have to make up a class in summer school. I graduated.
My parents, in their wisdom thought that letting me go to college in the fall would be a fast track to failing out (a very safe assumption). They decided it would be best I defer going to Radford in the fall and instead attend community college and go to Radford in the spring. I was unmotivated, clueless and lazy.
A quarter century later my experience plays out in the back of my mind as I proofread a Stanford admission essay written by a senior student who wants to turn it in two months before it is due. But maybe I speak with the extra air of authority when I tell students to be on top of the process; knowing how poorly it can be done if you don’t have your ass in gear.
Of course, now I can look back and say that destiny was at play. My “gap” semester led to experiences that challenged and developed me. I’m often reminded of the Jon Kabat-Zinn book on mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are” when I’m talking to students who are in the midst of a mental breakdown regarding their futures. “It’s all going to work out” I want to tell them and somehow convince them that it will. Not to say that some will make terrible, even fatal mistakes but it will all work out, it always does. How did it work out for me? If I hadn’t been asleep at the wheel of life during my senior year of high school I probably wouldn’t have gone to Radford University.
If I had not gone to RU, I would not have been taught by Nick Pappas. Dr. Pappas was a football powerhouse at Shepherd University in the early 1960s. Though he was drafted to play professional football the New York Giants he instead enlisted into the Officer Training School for the United States Marine Corps. In 1965, the Vietnam War began in earnest and the Marines were off to DaNang. As recounted in Philip Caputo’s Vietnam classic A Rumor of War, Lieutenant Pappas was told by his commanding officer that there was a report that the North Vietnamese were laying mines around the airbase in DaNang and that Pappas should ascertain the validity of that report. I recall Pappas telling me that he left the briefing curious how he’d ascertain the validity.
After a lengthy recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. The disabled Nick Pappas received a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Virginia. In the 1980s he became a tenured professor in the Political Science Department at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. In the spring of 1994, I signed up for Introduction to International Relations taught by Dr. Pappas. The I think the reading list was Plato’s Republic, maybe Eric Voegelin‘s Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays.
Pappas usually wore the same thing, every day. A blue oxford shirt and blue work pants. In the winter he would hobble into class with a fur-lined bomber hat and he would announce his approach with loud bird calls from down the hallway or immediately outside the door. He took the time to figure out what his students did: if on a sports team there was usually talk about that upcoming or recently past contest and some discussion of the opposing team’s mascot. He learned that I grew up not far from the Quantico Marine Corps Base, where he had done his Officer Training. He would often describe a place on the base and ask if I knew if it was still there. His primary instrument of teaching was a handout known as a Raptorgrasp. Using quotes, thought bubbles and pictures he would draw the outline of his lecture, make connections and graphically plot out his thoughts. Every class I took from him followed the same basic format, he’d lecture and assign a writing prompt. We would write an essay in blue books for the following class. He would hand back the previous weeks marked up and the grade would always be assigned a Greek word. The Greek word for excellence, “Arete” was the highest score, they were rare.
Pappas was my teaching ideal, mysterious, irreverent, and inviting. Most of what he taught was unknown to the recent high school graduate. Or, perhaps Plato, Hagel, Marx, and Nietzsche were on the syllabus and I slept through them. He had a fantastic way of making our ignorance accessible. He’d say, “Don’t you remember Book VII of The Republic, Plato describes the Cave Allegory”? We didn’t, he knew we didn’t but rather that simple introduction allowed us to pretend we did and no time was lost. It was effective.
Many times I’d stop by to see him in his office. A turn of the century railroad house a block off campus, home of the Political Science Department. Even if you hoped to drop off a late paper, the creaky wooden doors and floors would betray your presence. Pappas would often either be asleep or deep in a book when you crossed the threshold into his office. More often than not he would have a chew in and he’d look up, his eyes would open super wide and he’d make the “one second/one minute” signal with his index finger as he swiveled around to spit out the chew into a white paper cup that he always had on his desk.
He was always willing to visit. And would suggest books to read, movies to watch, songs to listen to. He once gave my girlfriend at the time a Country Gentleman mixtape, he was obsessed with the song “Matterhorn” and would sing, “Men have tired and men have died to climb the Matterhorn” every time we walked into his office to see him. Like most good friend and teachers much of what he said to me has taken decades to sink in. He made me want to understand Thucydides and he showed me that an academic didn’t have to be some stuffed shirt. His influence made me the teacher I am today.
My wish for my students is that there is a Dr. Pappas out there for them. He changed my life in immeasurable ways. Life is short we are often told. I am strictly JV kids stuff when compared to this mountain of a man, but I like to think that a little of him rubbed off on me.
Dr. Pappas died aged 77 on September 5, 2017. I miss him terribly and wish I could thank him for all that he did for me, one more time.