While I take my role as a mentor and sculptor of young minds very seriously, I don't take myself so seriously that I can't connect with my students, whom I collectively refer to as "my babies". I spend time getting to know each of them, and threaten their lives if they don't visit with me during my office hours. Of course, I have a reputation for pushing them hard and making them learn, but I am respectful and never demeaning. My basic pedagogical approach is that learning should not be punishment, and that hard work and focus in my class will be met with recognition, praise and reward. When I was an undergraduate, I longed for this sort of clarity and openness with my own professors, and I do think that the majority of my students recognize and appreciate the fact that I am approachable and capable of connecting with them.
In my five years of working with students, however, today was the most interesting. I am accustomed to hearing compliments about my "coolness" or "awesomeness", etc., but I have never once been given the compliment that I remind someone of a "mom". It went a little something like this:
Justin, one of my younger male students, came to my office hours, sporting a new, Timberlake-esque haircut and facial hair, and of course, a double-popped collar. (Honestly, if he actually knew what "sexy" was, he would still be far too young to "bring" anything "back", but I digress.) Justin is a decent writer and an engaged student, and we talked about his progress in my class and how he will be applying to law school next year. He asked if I would write a recommmendation for him at that time, and I said yes. And that's when he sat back and this happened:
"Namaste, you're so awesome. You're, like, the best teacher I've had in college. You remind me so much of my friend's mom."
Eh? A mom? Doesn't a mom mean, like, someone in her, like, 40's? Or something?
"I mean, not that you're old or anything... Just that you're so cool and smart like her..."
Oh, ok. Well, thank you, Justin. I appreciate the compliment.
"Yeah--and she was totally hot, too."
Oh, ok. (Now feeling my oh-shit-discomfort alarm start to signal.) That's very nice of you to say, but not necessar--
"Like, well, ok, only you're actually hotter than her because... I can tell that when you're old like that, you're going to look a lot better because you do yoga and stuff...and...you take really good care of yourself...."
Oh...ok...thanks, Justin. We should probably wrap it up here, shouldn't we? (Now shuffling papers in front of me to distract anyone seated nearby from hearing any more of this conversation.)
"Yeah, and I mean, if it's, like, any consolation, my friends mom?--She's a total MYLF. And so I have no doubt that you'll be a total PYLF when you get to be her age--even though you sort of already are..."
A PYLF? Did I miss something?
"Oh, yeah, you know, a Professor-You'd-Like-To-F-ck."
Yes, folks. I'm a PYLF. It takes a lot for me to be speechless, and I could have never prepared for this one...
Justin finally got up and left, and now I'm not going to be able to hang out in my favorite coffee shop for a few days. Word instantly got around that I am officially a PYLF, and the baristas took great pleasure in this all afternoon. My tea refills were met with: "ONE FREE REFILL FOR NAMASTE, THE PYLF!!!" Then, the guys from the Seminary wanted to know what a PYLF is, which was met with laughter and applause all around. Before I knew it, half of my own department was abuzz with the news that today one of my students called me a PYLF. I got two emails from colleagues. One said, "Hey, Namaste--Congrats on being PYLF-of the-Year!" Maybe this is yet another rite of passage, I keep telling myself. After all, it is pretty funny. But regardless, this one is definitely going to take me a few weeks to live down.