On a grey Friday afternoon in February 1993, I met with Dr. Ralph Allen Cohen, my Shakespeare professor, at his office in James Madison University’s Keezell Hall. Dr. Cohen may not have known it, but he was my favorite teacher. And I was a very good student–at least in subjects I liked as much as Shakespeare.
We met that day merely to talk about my planned term paper, but the meeting wound up changing my life. Toward the end of it, as I put away my notebook, Dr. Cohen offered up an idea.
“You know,” he said. “I’m leading a study abroad group in the fall in Florence, Italy. There are a couple of open spots left, if you’re interested. We might even be able to get you a scholarship.”
I suspect he was mainly making small talk. But the idea of going to Italy intrigued me. There was just one problem: I was set to graduate in May. Spending a semester in Italy would mean spending a lot more of my parents’ money, scholarship or not.
“I’ll think about it,” I told Dr. Cohen.
He smiled and nodded, in the way you do when you think “I’ll think about it” means “I just don’t want to say ‘no’ out loud.”
That night, I called my mom–the person I called with everything important. I explained the situation and said, “I don’t know; I think I might want to go.”
Then I closed my eyes, went silent, and waited for her reply. I expected her to say I was out of my mind–suggesting I should delay graduation and spend a semester in Italy, taking courses I technically didn’t need and learning a language I had never once spoken before.
But after pausing for barely a second she said, “Are you kidding? You should definitely go.”
“You think so?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said. “Studying abroad in Italy with your favorite professor? That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When you have one of those, you can’t pass it up.”
It was undoubtedly great advice: Thanks to mom’s encouragement, I applied for the program, got the scholarship, delayed graduation, and went to Florence–where I learned to speak Italian, discovered the history of art, and, most importantly, met my future wife, Mary.
Remarkably, though, that advice–to seize the semester, so to speak–was only the second best advice my mom ever gave me.
The best advice came later, when she and dad visited me in Florence. On their penultimate night in Italy, the three of us went to dinner at my favorite pizzeria.
I talked and talked, about Italy, my adventures there, and evidently Mary, with whom I had become good friends but nothing more.
As I babbled on and on, mom finally reached across the table and took me by the wrist. “Steven,” she said, using the full, official version of my name, almost as if I were in trouble, “if you like this girl Mary so much, why don’t you ask her out?”
Best. Advice. Ever.
I have 23 years and three beautiful daughters to prove it.