I remember the silence that fell over the room when we first saw Professor Wiesel. To most of us, he was not yet Professor Wiesel. He was Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner, award-winning author and humanitarian. I didn’t know how to feel as he came into the room accompanied by Professor Johnston. He had an intensity about him, as well as a profound aura of calm. After the students had all introduced themselves, his face broke into a warm smile and his eyes relaxed, glistening with delight. He told us how glad he was that we were all in the class. His words were always kind and genuine, and he put us all at ease.
Over the next few weeks, we had the most rigorous, inspirational class I had ever attended. Professor Wiesel’s words ignited my spirit, and every day I left class with a sense of wonder and purpose. What I enjoyed most, however, was simply being around him. Thomas Merton describes a Celtic concept of “thin places,” where the veil between the physical world and the divine is thin. In these places, one has a greater awareness of God. Whenever Professor Wiesel entered the classroom, the space around him became thin. It didn’t matter whether he was speaking, smiling or sitting silently at the front of the room listening to us, his energy transformed the room into a sacred space.
I was lucky enough to take the course with Professor Wiesel twice. I wasn’t sure he would remember me the second year, but of course he always remembered everyone, and he remembered my name as well as our conversations the previous year. Early in the course that second year, I met with him for a personal session. Each of us was fortunate to have a personal meeting with Professor Wiesel in the mornings before class. For the first five minutes of my personal discussion with him, we chatted about the class and I asked him about his family. We talked about ordinary things, how he was enjoying Florida, how my studies were going. I mentioned some small thing about possibly wanting to be a professor and he simply said, “You will be a great teacher.” As he said this, I felt a lump swell up in my throat and I began to cry. He silently took my hands in his hands. We sat quietly until the meeting was over. Then he thanked me for being in the class, and I thanked him between my tearful sighs.
At the time, I didn’t know why I had cried. I even wrote about the mystery of my tears in one of my journals for the class. Looking back, I realized that at that moment, when he made his comment to me, I recognized what Professor Wiesel had dedicated his life to, the simple but important value of each and every person. In this ordinary moment, talking about school and work and family, he had allowed me to see my value as a human being and the wonder of being one of God’s creations. And in turn, I could see this beauty in him. I understood that this is how he saw all people. His vision of others wasn’t filtered by their wealth, success or intelligence, but he saw each person as a beautiful creation worthy of respect and love, and in whom a spark of God resides.
During class he would say, “You are all very important.” He said this almost every day, and he truly meant every word. I felt important when I was in class with him. His teaching and his presence made me feel that I was part of something greater than myself. On the last day of class, we went outside to take a group photo. Afterward, we mingled and lamented the end of the course. I went to give my regards to Professor Wiesel. He smiled at me and squeezed my hand saying, “Shelby, thank you.” I replied, “Thank you, Professor Wiesel.” My words were insufficient to express my gratitude for everything he had given to me and to my classmates; as he had often told us, words are not enough to describe the mystery of life. I will miss him dearly, and I will never forget how close to God I felt in his presence and my responsibility of being a witness to his memory.
—Shelby Hall ’16