Old School

The Question That Changed Everything

My professor's answer showed me what I had been unable to see before: her willingness to be a mentor

Dr. Hood was the Cruella de Vil of professors: demanding, critical and hard-driving. That's what fellow students in my graphic design program claimed, anyway, when warning me to avoid her courses if at all possible. But when I flipped open the spring catalog, she was the only one teaching the classes I needed. I was in my late thirties then, returning to college to make a midlife career switch and thriving among the much younger students who populated the program. "The kids" must be exaggerating, I told myself. No professor could be that tough.

I was wrong.

Professor Hood, who rarely flashed a smile, often called out students for not concentrating in class. Her demanding, complex assignments took entire weekends to complete. Back at school, we pinned them to the wall, where she eviscerated them one by one during her critique sessions.

I took the negative comments hard. This program represented a second chance to find work as an artist, something I'd excelled at in high school but managed to get estranged from in college. Now I wondered if I were really cut out for the rigors of graphic design. Here I was, pushing 40 and feeling like a failure in the eyes of my college professor.

Maybe that's why I worked so diligently on a particularly challenging assignment, a tabloid-size, four-page magazine spread, mounted on foam core. I stayed up most of the night making sure the headings, text and photos lined up. Attention to detail I was sure that would impress Professor Hood.

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In class the next day, she pulled up a chair next to mine and proceeded to point out every single flaw in my project. My copy had too many hyphens. My captions needed to be bolded. My paragraphs had too many lines. Each negative jab instilled more doubt. Maybe I wasn't as artsy as I'd thought. Maybe I didn't belong in this program. Maybe I shouldn't make a career change.

Perhaps it was because I was running on only four hours of sleep. Or maybe I was getting too old for this level of criticism. I'm not sure what emboldened me, but I turned to my professor and asked: "Is there anything you like about these spreads?"

She hesitated. Then she smiled and said, "As a matter of fact I do."

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Professor Hood spent the next 15 minutes complimenting my layout, photos, and color scheme. "You get it," she said.

That one question of mine changed the trajectory of our relationship. My professor's answer showed me what I had been unable to see before: her willingness to be a mentor. In the weeks that followed, Professor Hood was no longer the feared teacher but a revered role model. I learned how she studied under famous designers, how she'd started a college graphic design department and how she'd owned a successful design studio.

I had been so afraid of Professor Hood that I hadn't been able to recognize her hard-earned creative prowess. Other students continued to tiptoe around her but I chose to become a sponge, asking for extra assignments, picking her brain. I couldn't get enough of her experience obtaining high-profile clients, directing photo shoots and managing the printing process. She freely shared it all.

When I finished the program, I stopped by her office to say goodbye. "You're one of the best professors I've ever had," I said, tears rising to my eyes. She gave me a hug, "You are one of the best students I've ever had."

Years later, as the president of my own graphic design firm, I still think about that day in class with Professor Hood and the question I summoned the courage to ask her. Until that moment, I'd believed that education was all about the answers. When I was closest to questioning my talent and squelching my dreams, I discovered that sometimes it's the questions that matter most.