What I learned from Alok.

The following posting is going to be somewhat self-indulgent, maybe even preachy.  I like to avoid writing about myself or my personal experiences, and I really hate to preach.  Today I’m going to make an exception because there are a few things I need to share.

Alok Kumar Mehta was a student of mine.  A great kid, I had him in two separate courses while I was teaching at Hofstra University.  He was an MBA student, from Alabama of all places, working on a dual major in accounting and finance.

Alok was a gregarious fellow and attempted to connect with everyone he met.  He always tried to find some common factor with each person, a few conversation points that could eventually grow into friendship. 

“Teachings of the Fathers,” (“Pirkei Avos”), a book in the Talmud, relates sayings handed down from the Jewish Sages.  Today, as I teach, I often think of this quote:

Ben Zoma said, “who is wise?”  He who learns from all men, as it is said “From all my teachers I have gotten understanding” (Psalms 119:99).

I’m sorry to say that I paid little attention to Alok, and, back then, I keep what I thought to be a healthy distance from my students.   Alok was smart and personable, but I liked to keep my polite distance.  He persisted, and discovered that I like “real country” music – a shared interest.  Before I knew it, we were talking about Vince Gill, George Strait, and I shared my discovery of Don Walser.  But I still kept a polite distance.

It wasn’t until September 14 that I realized that Alok went down with the World Trade Center.  He was supposed to be in my MBA Management Accounting class.  I had completely forgotten about the internship he was so excited about – with Cantor Fitzgerald – until I took attendance and came to his name in my class roster.  It was when I was taking attendance – on the second day of class – that I realized what happened to him.  I suddenly remembered that he had an internship in the World Trade Center.  And now he was absent.

Back then we all assumed that the victims of 9/11 would be found in the debris.  The first responders were sifting through the debris, and we assumed they would come to some huge air pocket – and there they would find all the people, patiently waiting to be rescued.  Alok would, of course, be found with the rest of them.

Alok had previously come by my office to tell me about his internship, and all about Cantor Fitzgerald.  He was very excited about it.  I listened, nodded my head, but I really didn’t listen – I was keeping my distance, as I always had.  I tried to show him I cared, but, in retrospect, I don’t think I really cared enough.  As I watched the towers burning directly from my home-office window, I completely forgot that Alok was there interning with Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 103rd floor.

From this, I learned that quality teaching requires as much listening and caring as it requires speaking. This is perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Alok and 9/11.  A good teacher listens to his students, he knows them, and he cares about them. 

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About Mark P. Holtzman

Chair of Accounting Department at Seton Hall University. PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Worked at Deloitte's New York Office. BSBA from Hofstra University.

6 comments

  1. I am really sorry to hear that. Sometimes we learn more and connect more with the people we least expect it. Many of my best friends were people who I ignored for years.Blackswan87

  2. This story is a great eye-opener. I am sorry about what happened to this ambitious and personable kid, but I am happy that his story is now serving as an inspiration and a reality check to all us. Like you I have forfeited a lot of life changing opportunities because of my unwillingness to let persons into my space or to connect with people at varying levels. Indeed, anyone in an instructor/leadership role can only impact their understudy's life by holistically caring for that person – physically, emotionally, academically and spiritually. We are called to love people first; them to impart knowledge.

  3. It is unfortunate what happened to Alok and the others on that day. Especially with that in mind it is important to remember to reach out to people or to listen whole heartedly when someone is trying to reach out to you. Half the time we are so busy with our lives that it is practically second nature to not genuinely be interested in what someone else is saying. I actually know a family friend who happens to be like a father figure who worked in the WTC and was running late that morning and just decided to turn back home. With that said, I did not know someone personally that was affected by the attacks; however it is important to look back and be thankful for the people we have and the conversations we share.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Alok sounded like a great person, and it is sad that we have to face losing someone sometimes to appreciate them. I am so glad to hear about these types of experiences related to such a tragedy. It helps us all never forget. My cousin actually had just graduated college the May before 9/11, and it gave him guidance. He decided to become a fire-fighter and add meaning to his life. I have so much respect for the heroes who help us every day, and for the families and friends who had to face so much loss.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. It is such a tragedy what happened to Alok and all the other people whose lives were lost on 9/11. I am glad that you were able to gain a life lesson from this tragedy. It is times like this that make us realize that life is too precious, we should not take things for granted and put off till tomorrow what we can do today. Because in some cases – there will not be a tomorrow.

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