“Steve, I am seriously addicted to coke!”
These were words that I had uttered to my good friend Steven Stewart during the first month of my undergrad at The University of Memphis. I had lived in India till I completed my high school. I then migrated to the US with my parents in 1998. Chennai and Memphis – just about the only similarity I could find between my hometown and my new town was that they both belonged to the southern region of their respective countries! Pescatarians will be up in arms if I claim to have felt like a fish out of water. And they would be right – it surely felt worse!
Soon after landing in Memphis, I was to figure out that Southern accents don’t sound the same in India and the United States! But it was to get much better. Plus, living under the protective roof that my parents blessed me with, it did not feel right to complain. So there I was, taking tentative steps into the beautiful, lush green campus. I quickly made some friends, one of whom was Steve.
A few weeks into the semester, Steve and I were walking to the library to work on a homework assignment. It was a rather muggy afternoon. I was feeling quite parched. And as I approached the vending machine outside the library, I made the proclamation rather loudly! Steve’s face was as frozen as the carrot on a snowman’s nose. It took him a few interminable seconds to realize that I was referring to diet coke, my soft drink of choice! As he saw the stunned look on other students’ faces, he helpfully pointed out that ‘coke’ was slang for cocaine and that it was best not to use the word “addicted” alongside! As one’s face was being thawed, the other’s face was getting frostbite! My embarrassment was so acute that I was almost in tears and I excused myself! I had to see Dr. Jamison right then! Dr. James Jamison – he was my Math professor. He was to be a lot more to me in the years to come.
I took Dr. Jamison’s Calculus class in my first semester. In one of the happiest accidents of my life, I was supposed to be in another section but I was so green that I couldn’t even figure out the error until I received a letter late in the semester stating that I had not attended class all semester. Of course, I hadn’t…in the section that I was supposed to sit in! I was in Dr. Jamison’s class all along. A professor in his 50s (at that time), he at first seemed to be a little distant, but unmindful of that, I kept asking questions in the middle of his lectures with a standard opening line, “I have a doubt.” It was standard practice in schools in India to say “I have a doubt” when one has a question for a teacher. But Dr. Jamison had no clue what I was saying. I am sure my thick Indian accent wouldn’t have helped my cause! After a couple of weeks, during his office hours, he gently asked me why I used the word “doubt” when all I was asking was a simple question. The thoughtfulness that he exhibited in not embarrassing me in front of my classmates and instead asking me in private, was the first of many meaningful things that he had done for me in my life. The person that seemed a little distant initially was now making me feel closer to my new home. So it was only natural that on the day that I spoke unabashedly about an addiction, that I felt the need to rush to his office!
With sweat dripping from my forehead – no, the hot weather wasn’t the only culprit! – I knocked on his door. Much to my relief, he was there. When I narrated to him this incident, he laughed out loud. But he immediately added, “It is okay, Ram! You can laugh!” In response, I asked, “I am scared of talking to anyone now. What if I commit more blunders?” He was silent for a couple of minutes. But he then said, “Go to the Educational Support Program office. I will send them a note. Go enroll as a tutor!”
I was incredulous. Here I was talking about being scared and he was asking me to become a tutor. When he saw the disbelieving look on my face, he said, “Ram, you are very good at Math. Go and teach. Your love for Math will help you overcome your fear of speaking.” Even though I was not sure of myself, I trusted him blindly and joined the program (that was designed to help struggling freshman students) as a tutor. Before I left his office he added, “But remember, you might make mistakes. Just remember to laugh. Just remember to learn. That’s it!” Years later, I was awarded the “Outstanding Teaching Assistant” award during my MBA at Carnegie Mellon University. No prizes for guessing the person that I called right after the ceremony.
The equation of his life had the unwavering constant of grace. In a similar vein, in the sixteen years that I knew him, the equation of my life had a constant amidst several variables – his presence. I am glad that even after I left Memphis, we stayed in touch. I am glad that he saw me achieve great successes. And I am glad that he made me see my failures as a passing phase. I just wish that his cancer had not added a variable that morphed the equation of my life into an unsolvable inequation on November 28, 2014. May your soul continue to rest in peace, Dr. Jamison. I have one last ‘doubt’ – “Why did you have to leave us so early?”