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Professor Cavanaugh’s Best Lecture

 

A word from Curt

Teacher.  There’s no higher calling.  There’s few professions that can influence as well as a dedicated teacher.

The best teacher I ever met was Charles Cavanaugh.

This is his story.

Charles Cavanaugh was a product of the Louisiana Pineywoods in Vernon Parish.
Charles Cavanaugh was a product of the Louisiana Pineywoods in Vernon Parish.

 

Professor Cavanaugh’s Best Lecture

Nervously I stood in the hallway outside the Louisiana College biology department’s second floor office, waiting to see Professor Cavanaugh. I’d been standing here for several minutes, my chemistry book under one arm, and a class drop sheet in the other.

Professor Charles J. Cavanaugh was a Louisiana College institution. “Prof” as he was affectionately known, had taught biology there for over thirty years. He was the most beloved and respected teacher at Louisiana College. At first glance he seemed to be an unassuming and ordinary man. However, on my first day of biology class, when he strode to the podium and began lecturing without any notes, it was obvious I was in the presence of greatness. This man was a master teacher, who blended a serious love of teaching with a kindly smile and a sharp sense of humor.

Prof. Cavanaugh taught both of my freshmen biology courses. Without a doubt, he was the most awe-inspiring teacher I’d ever encountered. Never once in those two semesters did I see him use any notes—everything came from his memory and years of experience. His unique method of teaching made the material seem to come alive. Students in his classes never came in late or talked during the lectures. To be in his lectures was to be in the presence of a master at work.

He was so admired and respected at Louisiana College that the school renamed the Science and Math Building as “Cavanaugh Hall,” even while he was still an active teacher working there.

So, I had somewhat of a reason to be nervous as I stood outside the office door of this legend. The reason I was here was out of sheer desperation. The previous year, I had selected science education as my major—largely due to the powerful influence of Prof. Cavanaugh’s biology teaching.

However, during my trek toward this goal of being a science teacher, I had run into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—it was called Chemistry 105. Being from a rural school, my chemistry background was pretty weak. In fact after two weeks of class, they’d covered everything I knew, plus a heck of a lot I didn’t. I desperately found myself drowning in a raging sea of formulas, equations, and complex problems. I felt distraught, discouraged, and hopeless.

I really felt confused and lost. Realistically, I fully understood I probably could not pass this course—not just this semester, but most likely never. I saw my dream of teaching science going down the drain. With resignation, I went by the registrar’s’office and picked up a drop slip. My plan was to take the test tomorrow, and after I failed it, simply drop the Chemistry class the next day.

After picking up the drop slip, I impulsively went to Cavanaugh Hall and decided to see Prof. Cavanaugh, before heading back to my dorm to lick my wounds.

So I stood there peering in the window of his office, watching him walking back and forth, gathering papers. My courage melted and I turned to leave. I told myself he probably wouldn’t even remember me from last year’s classes. But before I could chicken out and leave, Professor Cavanaugh came walking out the door.

Impulsively, I blurted out, “Could I talk to you?” I’m sure my voice and face had the sound and look of desperation.

Prof. Cavanaugh stopped with an armload of papers and smiled as he said, “Sure.”

So, I began my tale of woe to this kindly old gentleman. I shared how I really felt it was God’s will for me to become a science teacher. However, with my inability to grasp chemistry, I saw no course but to drop the class and leave behind my dream of science teaching.

Before I could continue, he interrupted me and spoke. His kindly smile tightened as he firmly said, “God’s will? God’s will? Son, I’ll tell you what God’s will is for you—get in there, work, and pass Chemistry. That’s what God’s will is for you!”

He didn’t say it unkindly, but he said it with definite conviction. His face had turned slightly red as he passionately issued this challenge to me.

I really don’t know if he said anything else, because I was in such shock. I’d come for encouragement from this great man and instead had received a brief, brisk, and clear lecture. Prof. Cavanaugh turned and strode down the hallway, leaving me in the wake of the words he’d just spoken. I felt about two inches tall and it was as if my own grandpa had just given me a stern lecture.

Well, I studied Chemistry hard that night. I took the test the next day simply determined to do my best. Miraculously, I passed it! Well to be perfectly honest, I passed it with the lowest possible D, but much to my shock, I had really passed this test.

But the greatest miracle was what happened inside me. I decided that very day that nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goal of teaching. Prof’s challenge in the hallway had lit the fire of determination in me. I was going to pass this course or die trying.

One day, a month or so later in Chemistry lab, my teacher, Dr. Dennis Watson, called me to the side and as he eyed me suspiciously said, “What’s happened to you?” I really believe he thought I’d either had a brain transplant or was a very crafty cheater.

The fact that I eventually made an A in both the lecture and lab was no great reflection on me, but rather a tribute to the fire Professor Cavanaugh’s speech lit in me. His “lecture” in the hallway of the building bearing his name taught me this spiritual truth, which is so important to grasp: Most of the time God’s will is much simpler than we choose to make it. It can usually be summed up this way—Do your best where you are, and bloom where you are planted . . . and don’t quit.

It’s been over twenty-five years since Prof. Cavanaugh taught me. I’ve probably forgotten most of the biology knowledge he instilled in me. I’m pretty rusty on mitosis, DNA models, and cell structure. However, his lecture in the hallway still reverberates in my heart. When I’ve found myself in tough times, as we all do throughout life, I’ve taken solace in the words of this wise old professor who reminded me of the importance of perseverance and hard work.

Yes, I did go on to teach both biology and chemistry. What a great time I had teaching young students about the wonders of science! Sometimes, during the year, in my senior chemistry classes, I would open my worn college chemistry book and take out a faded, yellowed dog-eared blank drop slip and share this story. Once again, I was reminded, even as I told them, that in life we all face times when it seems hopeless and we feel lost and confused. But that is always the exact time to buckle down, work hard, and find God’s will, by simply doing our best.

Yes, God’s will—most often—is simply doing the best we can, right where we are.


Once, Professor Cavanaugh spoke to a group of new teachers: “Good teaching is leadership. If you seriously teach your best, and if you show your students you really care about them, one day those students may rise and call you blessed.”

About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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