This past weekend my freshman Readings Conference teacher, Mary Sue Cave, passed away. I just sent the following remarks to my undergraduate advisor, Dr. David Hoch, so he can read excerpts at her memorial service tomorrow. I’m posting this here because none of you probably knew Mary Sue, but I wish that you could have. Her example proves that talented teachers can have a lasting impact on their students. Rest in peace, Mary Sue.

Mary Sue Cave was a remarkable teacher precisely because she never taught me anything. Mary Sue never told us what she thought a particular text meant, what she personally believed, or what we should think about any given topic. Try as we might, we never could “trick” Mary Sue into tipping her intellectual hand: the focus was always on what we thought a text was trying to say, not on what Mary Sue believed.

I was lucky: I had Mary Sue as my Readings Conference advisor for my entire freshman year. This was in 1987 when I was eighteen, happy to be away from home, and eager to rebel against everything I’d been raised to believe. Mary Sue must have sensed that I needed a little extra supervision, for as soon as she heard that I had changed my major from biology to English, she insisted on introducing me to Dr. Hoch, then the Chair of the English Department. In declaring that I needed to meet Dr. Hoch, Mary Sue steered the course of my academic career, but she did so in a typically non-commandeering way: my meeting Dr. Hoch was a simple necessity, so she promptly made the appointment. Mary Sue said it needed to happen, so it did: it was as natural as the sun rising in the morning.

Although I frankly can’t recall the topics of any of my readings conference papers, I remember that I always left my paper conferences feeling amazed: how had Mary Sue managed to find so many profound insights in a paper that I had duly pumped out the night before, as any other procrastinating freshman might do? How had she managed to get me to re-think not only my paper but the various “difficult” texts we’d discussed, and how did she manage to do this without ever TELLING me anything? Although I had heard, of course, of the Socratic method whereby instructors teach through questions, I had always imagined Socrates as being an aggressive trial lawyer, peppering his subjects with cross-examination. Mary Sue, on the other hand, was a master of the judicious pause: instead of grilling or prodding, she posed questions that gently invited us to think more deeply. Our readings conference class was a bright and rowdy bunch, yet Mary Sue governed with a light hand: she had an almost miraculous knack for asking questions that re-framed a given discussion, leading us to consider any given issue from a new and intellectually fruitful perspective. As someone who now has over 10 years of college teaching under my belt, I still look to Mary Sue’s example with amazement: I don’t know how she did it.

There was one time when Mary Sue came close to telling me what to do with my life, but in typical fashion her direction was more a provocative suggestion–the planting of a fertile seed–than a direct admonition. Having been raised Catholic, I was thrilled when our Readings Conference class read Martin Luther: I loved the boldness of a man who dared to split the Church asunder in the name of Biblical truth. When I met with Mary Sue to talk about a paper I’d written on Luther, I shared my evangelical zeal for Luther’s red-blooded interpretation of the Gospel: like Luther, I declared, I was going to leave the Catholic Church! Mary Sue paused and nodded–she always paused and nodded, no matter how hair-brained a point one of her students made–and advised me to wait.

Wait? Why? Martin Luther hadn’t waited, I must have argued: Martin Luther acted, and so should I, intending to nail my own version of the 95 Theses on my family’s door!

Mary Sue then related a story from her own youth, a story whose precise details I’ve now forgotten. But I remember that she too at one point had wanted to convert from one religion to another, but a trusted friend had advised against it, arguing that it would be too traumatic for her family. And then Mary Sue made a gentle suggestion that made no sense to me at the time but which turned out to be remarkably prescient:

“The Catholic Church is home to a rich mystical tradition that you someday might want to explore.”

At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t know what “mysticism” was, and I certainly had no knowledge of the Catholic Church’s mystical tradition. And in true-to-form fashion, Mary Sue didn’t TELL me that I should learn about Catholic mysticism, nor did she inundate me with books I should read or ideas I should explore. Instead, she simply planted the seed of a suggestion: don’t do anything drastic because in time you might want to explore something you’ve hitherto overlooked.

And of course, Mary Sue was right. Some 15 years later, I’m finishing a PhD in English literature, and for one of my comprehensive areas I studied the writings of English medieval mystics. I didn’t end up studying texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing because Mary Sue told me to; instead, in the shadow of her gentle guidance, I eventually found my own way through my own unknowing cloud.

I personally don’t believe that heaven is a place where harp-strumming believers float on clouds, but I’d like to think that Mary Sue is in a better place. In my mind, I envision a long conference table where Mary Sue is leading a conversation with the thinkers she admired: in my mind’s eye, I see Plato there, and Jesus, and Luther and Descarte. Great thinkers all, they’ve never met the likes of Mary Sue: without any sting of confrontation, they each are feeling the intellectual stretch of her beautiful, gentle questions. Mary Sue, we all here sorely miss you, but as we remember, we all are sitting here, like you did, pausing and nodding.