Image Credit: Courtney Herod

Reciprocal Growth

"Dr. Nkana, is that you?" I asked as we passed in a hotel convention center.

It had been 21 years since I was in Sam Nkana’s college classroom. He was a first-year college professor, and I was a sophomore encountering my first major-specific class.

Not long into the semester, tensions arose between Nkana and his class. We had multiple clashes of ideas, and it didn’t seem like there was an easy way to resolve our frustrations. Despite seeking intervention from the dean, the atmosphere remained strained.

One day, while discussing theories of public relations, my pent-up frustration burst forth. Seated amid my peers, I boldly interrupted Nkana with pointed questions: “So what? Now what? How does this apply to real life?”

The whole class held its breath. The undercurrent of dissatisfaction had pervaded the semester.

Nkana stopped his lecture and stood in silence. We waited in absolute silence.

A moment later, he gave a considered response. His response must have been somewhat acceptable to calm me and the rest of the class. The semester did become slightly better through gradual shifts in our learning and application, but the relationships within the class were still tenuous.

Years have blurred the specifics, yet one detail remains vivid: my disrespectful attitude. I dismissed the potential for learning from this new professor tasked with shaping my career's foundation.

I've regretted my attitude ever since and even told God in recent years that if our paths ever crossed again I would apologize.

Unexpectedly, that moment arrived recently at a convention center. Nkana, now a faculty sponsor, was surveying the venue with colleagues while I talked with a former classmate-turned-colleague.

As I called out his name, a flicker of recognition registered on his face. Reintroducing myself, I shared a summary of my memories and the subsequent regret.

He was surprised, yet open, to the conversation and the apology I offered. He then shared how he remembered where I sat in his classroom, the specific question that I had asked and how my "so what?" question spurred him to make sure the theories he taught had practical application.

To this day, in whatever type of academic or spiritual topic he is teaching, he makes sure to include a solid point of application. Little did we know from those first tension-filled classroom interactions how much we would influence one another in different ways.

My initial apology turned into a sacred space for a lengthy, nearly two-hour conversation between a professor and two of his former students.

We reminisced about our life experiences, intertwining personal anecdotes with profound reflections on education and personal growth. The conversation flowed effortlessly, threading through memories of challenging class discussions and exploring how perspectives had changed over time.

The weight of regret transformed into a sense of closure and peace, fostering new bridges of connection built upon understanding, forgiveness and common ground.

Reflecting on this unexpected encounter, I recognized the profound potential of reciprocal growth, both within the confines of the classroom and in life’s diverse landscape.

Life presents us with invaluable opportunities to engage, listen and glean wisdom from each other's journeys. It's within these moments that mutual learning, understanding, goodwill and personal development flourish, fueled by an open heart, genuine curiosity and a steadfast grounding in our identity as followers of Christ.

Encountering Nkana after all those years was more than a significant reunion and reconciliation; it was a meaningful revelation of the impact that genuine dialogue, generosity of thought and openness to learning can impart.

Table Talk Prompt

What conflicts and tensions in your life have provided you with valuable life lessons? Who is a person from your past or present with whom you need to reconcile?

Featured in: March/April 2024