This essay was originally written as the welcome message to our newest class of first-year students. It has been edited for publication in Wagner Magazine.
Why did I become a college professor? We are not here because of money, believe me; we are here because we are passionate about what we do. And our ultimate goal is to make our students passionate about the lessons that we share with them.
The beauty of small things for a professor is something as simple as a “Good morning, professor, how are you today?” You can’t imagine the number of times that students have passed in front of me as if I were transparent. (Hey, I am small, but you can see me when you enter my classroom!)
The beauty of small things is showing interest in one concept, in one word, in one image, in one mathematical operation, in one musical note, in one posture. When a class ends with a couple of students staying for a few minutes to continue the discussion, to connect the lesson with their own experiences, I consider myself the happiest professor on earth. When the opposite happens, when I see empty expressions and students watching the clock, when I hear them packing up 10 minutes before the class ends, I feel that I have failed that day and I consider becoming an empanadas vendor.
The beauty of small things is to create a safe space in which all of my students become avid readers, curious learners and compassionate human beings. A safe space … but not a failure-free space. This path is arduous; the journey entails risk, which requires courage. But remember: Failure will not doom your journey, and it is not something to be avoided at all costs. You will learn from it, and you will become responsible for charting your own path in learning. Your struggles are an important part of that process.
The beauty of small things is to understand that your professors are not criticizing you as a person; they are criticizing a product you are creating, and that product can always become better. It will never be perfect, because perfection does not exist. The professors I remember the most were those who gave me back papers full of circles, arrows, interrogation marks and comments. They helped me become a better writer, a reflective student and, ultimately, a better person. Professors will point out areas where you need to grow, and they will accompany you as you overcome obstacles.
The beauty of small things is language, and as a foreign-language learner and teacher, I will talk about this for a moment. Have you ever thought about the power and the magic of words? What is in each word that comes out of your mouth? What about the ones that you write?
The popular saying insists that we are what we eat. I would invite you today to think about the fact that we are what we write. In each word — whether it is in a text message, an email, an Instagram comment or an academic paper — there is both an obvious message and a hidden message. Our readers will recognize love, rage, wisdom, apathy and sadness in those written words.
As someone enchanted by languages, I have spent a good portion of my life learning words, repeating sounds and practicing the musicality of phonemes that are foreign to me. I am constantly in awe of the onomatopoeic sounds in English, those words that sound like the action you are describing. I feel the fresh water in “shower,” I am startled by a “boo,” I can visualize “drop” from the beginning of its journey to the moment it reaches the surface, I feel like crying with a “howl,” and I jump with happiness when I hear a “hurrah.” I bring my nails to my skin with an “itch,” and I rush to the door with a “knock.” I sharpen my ears for a “murmur,” and I cover them for the “thunder.” I go to sleep with a “whisper.”
As fascinated as I am with some words, I avoid the use of others. That is also the beauty of small things, especially when it comes to writing. I respect nouns and verbs, and I have learned to eliminate adjectives and adverbs. The Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro told us to “invent new worlds and guard your word; unless it gives new life, the adjective kills. Oh poets, why sing to the roses, let them flower in your poem.” Similarly, Mark Twain warned us, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them; then the rest will be valuable.”
Just remember this: When you write, don’t tell your readers that something is interesting or important; tell them why it is interesting or important without using those adjectives.
The secret to seeing the beauty in small things is to value them. Value each and every step you take. Accept imperfections, because they humanize you; embrace them, because they will allow you to connect more deeply with others. Care for others: those who enrich your life, who serve you an omelet in the morning, who clean the corridor in your dorm … the professors who share with you their knowledge, the administrators who care about your well-being at Wagner … those with whom you interact on a daily basis. Look them in the eye and offer them a gesture that shows you care about their efforts to make your life worth living.
The secret of small things is to leave this gathering with the eagerness to accomplish something small every day. Remember: Everything is in the details.
Margarita Sánchez, a former journalist from Colombia, is a professor of Spanish language and literature. She joined the faculty at Wagner College in 2000.