Positives found in professor’s ordeal


Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.

By now, everyone has heard the sensationalized story of the MSU professor who had a nervous breakdown in class this week. Pictures have been circulated, comments made and stories written. If you have started reading this one, I sincerely hope you read it all the way to the end. I won’t keep you long.

I attended undergraduate and graduate school at MSU in mathematics and taught for three semesters while there. I studied under Professor McCarthy, and he was one of the single most influential professors I had in my time at MSU.

His reputation at the time was that his class was so difficult that half the students who started would drop, and half of those who stuck would fail. That pretty much held true in the class I was in.

However, along the way, a funny thing happened: the rest of us grew. The rest of us were challenged to a level that forced us to become better mathematicians. I am forever thankful for that class and have told stories of Professor McCarthy for the last decade.

He probably wouldn’t remember me, but he had an impact on my life. Please don’t stop reading; this is not a story about math.

When I saw Monday’s story, I immediately hoped it was not Professor McCarthy. But when I heard it was him, it broke my heart. I knew the ridicule and jokes were coming.

What if that was not the case, though? What if, instead, MSU rallied behind this situation and turned it into a positive event in the lives of millions? Please hear me out.

We all have baggage. I know I do. So does every one of your friends.

One of your friends is suffering from clinical depression and afraid to tell you out of fear of being judged. One suitemate has an eating disorder, but is ashamed to tell you because of the stigma it carries. A friend was sexually assaulted this past weekend, but hasn’t told anyone out of fear that it would change the way he or she is viewed. A member of your fraternity or sorority who seems to have a perfect life actually struggles with feelings of inadequacy and lives life only to please others. You have a strong Christian friend who is addicted to porn and is terrified to talk about it because he feels like a hypocrite. You have friends who are bipolar, suffer from anxiety, cut themselves, were molested as children, etc. They all are afraid to talk about it.

What would you think if you knew? Would you still want to be their friend?

After I finished college, I took my current job with college students in what would best be described as a mentor role. This position fit perfectly with who I have been my whole life: the rock.

People come to me with their problems, and I help solve them. I am passionate about my job and love being there for people. But being vulnerable and willing to share my own baggage with them?

Now that would be terrifying.

I’ve felt this way for 29 years. I now am 30, and the last 18 months have been the best of my entire life. I began opening up. My relationships deepened. My marriage improved. I became a better mentor to others, and a better father to my daughters.

It’s still scary for me every time I open up to a new person and really let them in. A funny thing started happening, though — everyone else opened up in return, and I discovered a beautiful thing — we all are screwed up. We all have something in our lives we would rather no one ever know about. I am guessing Professor McCarthy did as well.

So my challenge to Spartan Nation is this: Let’s start a “vulnerable revolution” that changes this city and perhaps eventually will spread. Open up to a friend about your baggage. Stop being afraid of titles.

Some of the most brilliant and capable people in my life are bipolar, depressed, OCD, ADD, etc.

Guess what? These things are not that scary once you understand them. These are not crippling mental illnesses once you are willing to get help. If you struggle with one of these labeled conditions, you are no worse than someone who struggles with alcoholism, drug problems, low self-esteem or other challenges viewed as more mainstream. And you are also not alone.

If you laughed the first time you heard the story of Professor McCarthy or made a joke about it, you don’t have to beat yourself up. Most of us did. When we are uncomfortable, that is what society has taught us to do. It is time to break free. Let’s learn from this and become more knowledgeable as a society about mental illness.

Will Spartan Nation remember this event as a black eye? Or will John McCarthy’s legacy be that he was a great professor who taught with passion and whose personal challenges unfortunately became very public, but eventually were the center of a movement that touched the lives of countless students in an incredibly positive way?

I hope it is the latter.

Aaron Schafer is an MSU alumnus. Reach him at AaSchafer@southwestern.com.

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