– belated letter of appreciation to a former teacher & mentor –
Behind his back we called him the “Burning Bush.” Partly because of his wavy reddish brown hair, but mostly because he was dynamic and profound. No one who wandered into his orbit was ever the same again.
50 years ago a squeaky-clean teenager who didn’t even shave yet watched in utter fascination as Dr. John Bevan strode up to the podium of an Introductory Psychology class.
How to sum up and describe his influence on my life has haunted me for decades now. Time after time, through thick & thin, I have scrolled a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter and just let it sit there, pondering what to say.
Dear Dr. Bevan:
You may not remember me. I majored in psychology and graduated from Florida Presbyterian College in 1965.
A burning bush in the biblical sense is something continually on fire but which is never actually consumed. Out of such a revelatory experience is generated new knowledge, new insights. It was this noetic quality I was for so many years having such trouble describing. Words of praise and appreciation for my former professor seemed to effloresce and go ‘poof’ before I could get them on paper.
Where to start?
After reading the recent feature article on you in the Eckerd College* alumni magazine, Vision, I wanted to take this long overdue opportunity to thank you for being such a significant influence in my life.
I was not a very good student my first couple of years at FPC. I had a tendency to spend more time on the tennis court than in the classroom. Until, that is, I encountered your dynamic presence in an Introductory Psychology course. You made an immediate and lasting difference in my life. It wasn’t any one thing you said or did that tipped the scales for me. It was just the incredible whirlwind of passion and brilliance and enthusiasm which constantly emanated from your presence.
*Florida Presbyterian College was renamed Eckerd College in 1972
That sophomore semester in Dr. Bevan’s class I turned myself around, so to speak. I latched onto him like a barnacle and immediately declared my new major to be Psychology. I took every psychology course ever offered. Overnight I went from a flunkie to an “A” student. [At that time FPC was a brand new experimental avant-garde school which did not give conventional grades, only Honors, Satisfactory, and Unsatisfactory.] I eventually even wrangled a full scholarship to Vanderbilt Graduate School in the Clinical Psychology Ph.D program.
Although, to be sure, those were tough times. The Vietnam War, the draft, the end of student deferments. I only lasted a few months at Vanderbilt, and never did successfully become a psychologist.
In fact, truth be known, I was always prone to backsliding. Even in Dr. Bevan’s classes I would sometimes just for the hell of it play hooky weeks at a time, barely even showing up for exams.
Once, late in my senior year, I walked up on stage to receive an outstanding “multiple-athlete” award – [varsity golf, tennis, baseball, basketball] – at a college-wide ceremony that Dean Bevan was hosting. As he handed me my plaque and shook my hand he stared at me in a way which made me shamefully avert my eyes. (I had skipped way too many of his classes that semester.) But all he said was, referring to my athletic prowess, “so this is where you spend your time.”
Today I am a Professor of Humanities at Edison State College in Naples, Florida. Recently I attended a workshop on effective teaching, and each of us was asked to get up and give a short impromptu speech on the most influential teacher in our lives. I chose unhesitatingly to talk about you.
I don’t remember exactly what I said up in front of my colleagues that day. But as I write this letter, many vivid recollections come back to me. For some reason I particularly remember the physiological psychology course you taught. At the beginning of each class you would open a big file of notes and silently thumb through them for a minute or two. My impression was that you were actively wearing so many diverse hats for that brand-new & understaffed college that you probably had not taken much advance time to preview your lecture. But you would quickly focus your mind and refresh your memory, and then launch into a “performance” – pacing, whirling, breathing fire. “Cortico-Rubo-Tecto-spinal” this, and “Babinsky-Reflex” that. The terms that came wafting out over rows of spell-bound students were as poetically delightful as they were overwhelming. I couldn’t take notes fast enough.
To an impressionable young kid, you were awe-inspiring. My course notes from those days are long lost. But not for a minute have I ever forgotten your passionate commitment to the spirit of inquiry. Walker Percy once said that “to be aware of the possibility of the search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair.”
You put me on to something – something good, something life-affirming.
Someone, maybe it was B. F. Skinner, who was a dominant player in the world of behavioral psychology back in the day, said that education is what remains after we have forgotten everything we learned. Well, I forgot all that formal psychology stuff. What I remember, however, is what counts. The magnetic force of Dr. Bevan’s personality: the warmth, the vitality, the joy, the passion – all contributing to a radiance which was contagious.
What also stuck to my ribs over the years is the sense that education is a process. A ceaseless process of self-exploration, of self-discovery. It is a continuing drama kindled by those rare individuals who accept the frailty of words; they communicate more effectively by their effulgence – the sparkle in their eyes, the resonance in their voice, the humility of their actions.
And once this note of vibrancy strikes a responsive chord, the walls come tumbling down. Sooner or later you grow a new soul, for one truly does not pour new wine into old skins.
I still regularly get together with various FPC alumni. We talk about the good times. Your name always comes up in hushed, reverent tones.
Oh, yes, I also remember your final exam in that physiological psychology class. It was only one short brutal sentence: Expiate on everything between the ears, and their interconnections!
Thirty-five years after I last saw my secret mentor, Dr. Bevan, and with no real assurance that he would have any inkling who I was, I mailed him this long overdue letter of appreciation.
I just wanted to convey to you my sincere appreciation for all you have meant to me over the years.
John Hayes, ‘65
I dropped the letter in the mail on Wednesday, February 2, twelve years ago. Two days later, on February 4th, I read on the alumni chat board that Dr. Bevan, who was not quite eighty, died of respiratory failure after having spent about a month in the hospital.
My tribute obviously never reached him. It was probably still in his letter carrier’s pouch when Dr. John M. (Jack) Bevan drew his last breath.
Three weeks later, in March of 2000, I received in the mail a small thank-you sized envelope neatly addressed in scratchy black ink to “Prof. John Hayes.” On the back side was a pre-printed stickum-type return address. The “Dr.” in front of “John Bevan” had been crossed out, and “Mrs.” was superimposed over it, again in ominous black ink.
Out of guilt and a sense of fair play I refuse to open that return letter. I tacked it still sealed up over my desk. It stares at me and for the past twelve years I have stared back at it.