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:
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.