I’ve been teaching for Penn State University for 30 years. I spent part of that time in front of large classrooms full of undergraduate students. You can imagine the scene. Many students slouched in their auditorium seats, ball caps pulled down over their eyes, body language expressing no desire to be called upon or to speak up.
To keep my edge under such conditions, I approached each class session with the mindset that the day’s lecture would make a difference in the life of at least one of those students. I might never know who was affected, or how. But I believed someone in that classroom would be secretly inspired. And that belief inspired me to teach from the heart.
Not long ago, I heard from a former student through LinkedIn. Steve Smith was a student in the very first course I taught at Penn State – a laboratory course called Advanced Production Cartography. In those days (starting in 1989) Penn State’s Department of Geography offered the course during the month-long Intersession period, which Penn State now calls “Maymester.” Maymester is underway as I write this reminiscence.
Advanced Production Cartography was an intense four-week immersion in what was then the state of the art in cartographic design and production. Students labored hours every day on pen-and-ink drafting, hand engraving, a little bit of computer graphics and digital typography, and a whole lot of time in the darkrooms on the 2nd floor of Walker Building.
The class project was to design and produce a printed postcard that showcased original map content. (I borrowed the postcard concept from Judy Olson, who had led a similar class at Michigan State for years.) Steve chose a timely theme – the 100th anniversary of the Johnstown Flood of May 31, 1889.
Steve’s postcard features a 3-D terrain model of the Conemaugh Valley, illustrating the path of the flood from Lake Conemaugh to the city of Johnstown. Steve digitized the terrain from a topographic map, rendered the model with a PC-DOS program called Surfer, printed it on a newfangled laser printer, and then processed the print photomechanically. All the rest of the piece is produced manually, including lettering placed by hand.
The piece turned out so well that Steve and I marched into a local marketing firm and convinced the owner, Mimi Barash Coppersmith, to print and publish the postcard for Johnstown’s centennial. The card went on sale that summer. In 1990, Steve received a letter from the legendary Barbara Bartz Petchenik that he had won the American Cartographic Association’s Student Map Design Award. Later that spring he graduated from Penn State, and went on to work for Michelin in South Carolina, first as a cartographer.
Nearly thirty years later, here’s the message I received from Steve:
“Hi David. I just wanted to let you know that my family and I just did a prospective student tour for my son James at Penn State. It was an awesome time, which goes without saying, as PSU is a great university.
“We did the introduction and campus walking tour. Afterwards, we toured the Meteorology department, since my son is extremely interested in that. Oh…Walker Building, the memories for me…
“It brought back so many memories, but especially YOUR guidance during my time there, both in this class and the time I spent working in the Lab as an intern. You had a VERY large impact on my time there. Thank you once again for your time, patience, and tough love during that time. I would not be the man, employee, or person that I am today without your input.”
Steve continues, “On our travels back from my hometown of Bradford we had the opportunity to stop at the NPS Johnstown Flood National Memorial. It was my first visit, which is hard to believe. They no longer have *my* postcard/map for sale, but they were quite impressed and interested in the copy I showed them.
“Your class, Advanced Production Cartography with an emphasis on journalistic cartography, and working in the Deasy GeoGraphics Lab, is really how I got to be where I am today, professionally. It opened the door to my job at Michelin. I’m now a Senior Product Development Engineer designing tires for OE vehicles. It has been interesting as a tire designer to utilize spatial design realizations that I learned back in my PSU Geography Department days to now. I use them on a daily basis for new tire tread designs, and most times it blows away my coworkers. I will always remember you, David, and other professors and classmates, when it comes to who I am today.”
Steve’s message is an awesome gift. It affirms that teaching really does have the power to help young people find direction and purpose. Every experienced educator has a story like this to tell, and every new teacher can look forward to stories like it down the road. These stories sustain us to keep teaching with heart, despite all the disincentives. Remember, there’s at least one person out there – and you may never know who – but then again, you might find out someday!