Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In honor of Dr. Horace F. Martin, a much-belated THANK YOU

By Claudia Ricci

Sometimes we say thank you right away. But sometimes it takes us a long, long time to realize how grateful we are for someone's act of kindness. Sometimes, we wait a little too long to say thanks.

This is a letter of gratitude that I probably should have written in 1972, or shortly thereafter. That was the year I was a sophomore in college. It was the end of March when I broke up with my high school sweetheart. We'd been together for three years and had an amazing relationship. Considering how old we were, it was quite something.

Which made it all the harder when we mutually decided that it was time we experienced college separately. We sat together in Harvard Square (where he was going to school) and he sang me songs on his guitar all night. And then, as the light of day made its way onto the city streets, we parted. I can vaguely remember that I walked away. And waved.

That was the romantic part. What came after was tumultuous. I was devastated. I had lost my best friend. I had lost my anchor. I was back at Brown, completely unhinged.

I couldn't study. I couldn't focus. I can remember walking the streets of Providence in a blur, mourning my lost love. I was sinking quickly into my first bout of depression. I tried going to the counseling center. It didn't seem to help.

And then came a kind of guardian angel in the form of a lab instructor.

Dr. Horace Martin, who was a practicing physician in the Providence area, was my lab teacher. At the time he seemed older, as in, he was balding and a bit heavy set in a middle-aged kind of way. Looking back, he was probably about 40.

He was a kind man, and as luck would have it, he was very very intuitive. I hadn't given him any direct indication that I was in trouble. I was shuffling through the lectures on base pairs and DNA structure. I'm not sure how, but somehow this man figured out that I was deeply depressed.

I don't even remember the particulars of how he approached me. All I recall looking back is that he made it clear he knew I needed someone to talk to. Someone to lean on.

He told me about his family. He told me he had seven children, and they all lived near Providence. He asked me if I would like to come to dinner with his family.

I went. I remember nothing in particular except that his wife made a big family dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. I remember the warmth of the family. The kind of family I'd grown up with.

After dinner, he and his wife insisted I stay over for the night. I did and the next morning, Dr. Martin drove me back to campus.

That morning, he gave me the best advice perhaps that anybody, certainly any teacher, ever gave me. He told me to be very very good to myself. He told me that every single day of my life I had to treat myself to something special. Even if it was a very little treat. Buy yourself a candy bar, he told me. Looking back, I think I see why this man reached out to me. I think he saw a kindred spirit. Here in his classroom he recognized the danger signals, the signs that a student was suffering, or at least having a very rough time. I suspect he'd had his rough moments, and here he was, paying back.

So why am I writing this now, almost 40 years later?

I am teaching a new class called Reading and Writing the Happier Self at my university. We are reading all kinds of books about happiness -- texts from neuroscience, psychology, narrative theory, literature, as well as readings in contemplative pedagogy and spiritual practice. The lab for this class is a series of classes in mindfulness-based stress reduction.

One of the best books we are reading -- a student favorite -- is Sharon Salzberg's Lovingkindness, a book I've written about before. A book that has changed my life. A book that basically says we have to love ourselves and everyone else in the world. Not in a sentimental or passionate way, but in a way that brings out our deepest compassion. Even our enemies deserve our compassion, our "metta" (which can be translated from the Indian Pali language as "love" or "lovingkindness.") Much of Salzberg's book is devoted to the metta practices, the meditations that are designed to help us learn to love ourselves and others, including the most difficult people in our lives.

At one point Salzberg writes: "Great fullness of being, which we experience as happiness, can also be described as love. to be undivided and unfragmented, to be completely present, is to love. To pay attention is to love."

Dr. Martin paid attention to me, in a way that teachers frequently do not. He recognized my suffering and tried to be present for me.

I've thought about Dr. Martin's kindness many times through the years. About two years ago, I decide to try to find him. I tried finding him through the Rhode Island Medical Society. I tried finding him through the internet's White Pages. I found a few listings, including two for Horace Martins who were in their 80s. I didn't do anything further.

But now I regret that I didn't keep trying.

I wrote to a very nice editor at the Brown Alumni Monthly today and asked her if she could help me locate him.

It didn't take but a few minutes for her to respond, sadly, with his obituary. Dr. Martin died in April, 2010 of lung cancer, at the age of 79. He left his wife and seven children behind. In this obituary I learned that he had several degrees and so many professional accomplishments.

I am sad to think that had I done this two years ago, I might have sent him a thank you letter, one he richly deserved.

I think perhaps I should send this now to his family.

I think of him so often, especially as I am teaching this new class. I think of the lessons he taught me: the one about being good to myself. But the other one too: to attend to students. He showed me by example how important it is to pay close attention to not only the minds of your students, but to their hearts as well. He taught me to keep my eye out for those students whose faces make it apparent that they are really suffering. He taught me not to be afraid to reach out to a student to show her or him that you care, that you are there for them. That you are really present.

Lately, I've been getting more and more immersed in contemplative pedagogy -- a term that applies to the use of some rather ancient practices, like meditation, self reflection, in university classrooms. There are many benefits to these practices; they appear to help students both academically, by developing better focus and thinking skills, and also, emotionally, by promoting well-being. There is a growing movement among university educators to use contemplative practices to engage the whole student.

Last year, the first year I taught Happiness, I told my students that this new class was in part a tribute to a teacher, to Dr. Martin.

I now want to tell the world, and his family. I am eternally grateful for his simple act of kindness in 1972.

Had he not taken me home to dinner with his family, fed me spaghetti, I might have ended up dropping out of school.

Instead, I stayed. And today, as a teacher, I try as often as I can to pay back his kindness with my own kindness to other students, recalling always what he did.

LATE ADDITION: On Thursday, February 23, I was able to reach a member of Dr. Martin's family. That evening, I received a phone call from Dr. Martin's wife, Florence, and we had a wonderful conversation. She told me about the many professional accomplishments Dr. Martin had: he had a Ph.D., an M.D. (which he earned at Brown about the time I was a student), and later, he earned a law degree! Mrs. Martin says that I wasn't the only student he befriended: "He looked out for many of his students," she said. Mrs. Martin still lives in the home that she and her husband bought in 1978. In addition to her seven children and their spouses, she has 15 grandchildren, and all but one live in the Providence, R.I. area. While she misses her husband deeply, her life is very, very rich in family. It was a thrill to speak to her, and she told me that if I were ever near Pawtucket, where she lives, I have a standing invitation to stop by. I just may do that Mrs. Martin; I'd love to visit with you and share memories of Dr. Martin over a cup of tea. Meanwhile, I promised to print out this post and send it to her by mail.


jocelyn g said...

Such a fabulous story and so lucky all your students have you now.

Kellie said...

What a great story Claudia, on so many levels. I'm glad you got to say thanks to Dr. Martin's family, perhaps that was even nicer for them, receiving the thank you when they are still missing their beloved dad and husband. And it's true, your students are lucky to have you.

susan martin said...

Dear Dr. Ricci,
Thank you for your beautiful tribute to my father-in-law. I am married to Dr. Martin’s sixth child, his son John. We read together, with our two children, your lovely writings of him, both with tears in our eyes and soft smiles on our faces. Not a day passes that we don’t think of him and miss him dearly. Indeed, he was a remarkable man and would have been grateful and humbled by your kind words. He was taken too soon from us as his mind was ever sharp and his passions unwavering, likely just as you remember him. Your passage was a gift to us all, once again allowing us a tangible remembrance of the truly loving, devoted and amazing human being he was; a son, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a physician, a professor, a lawyer, a collaborator, a mentor, a friend. I do hope that you meet Florence for tea, she would love nothing more. It would likely be an afternoon that would mean the world to both of you!
With Warmest Regards,
Susan Martin

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Ricci for putting this story up about my dad. He had many gifts and perhaps one of his greatest gifts was his ability to know when to give advice. I remember going through a very difficult time with my business and was completely distraught. He told me to get in the car and took me for a long drive chatting the whole time about what my next moves should be. By the time we returned home I had a much better idea of how I was going to put myself back together and slept for the first time in days. Please let me know if you ever get a chance to come visit my mom. I would love to meet you as well.

Thank you again
John Martin

Anonymous said...

Simply Beautiful. Your amazing Dr. Ricci.

Your grateful Student,
Tre Branch

Anonymous said...

I also had worked directly with Dr. Martin as an assistant at Rhode Island Hospital. I was a 1992 and I was a junior at URI and doing an internship in the Chemistry Dept.
He was a great doctor. He had so many degrees that it inspired me to keep continuing with my education. He was down to earth, unlike so many scholars with his accomplishments.
I was saddened to just learn of his passing.