By Matt Gordon
I once turned down a dream job because of Katherine Burt.
My role would have been to guide the student culture at an American university abroad. Set in a stately castle, I’d teach a little, learn a lot, and spend weekends gallivanting about Europe, journal in one hand, the world in the other. I was young, under-qualified, but had somehow caught the eye of the institution and had beaten out much better applicants.
Then, Katherine Burt entered the room. She did so like she always did—quietly. Meek is thought of as a derogatory term in our society, somehow mixed together with weakness. But there is a strength in choosing meekness—in patiently waiting not for your time, but for the right time. Mrs. Burt put that meekness on each morning as routinely as one fills morning mug, and it made itself known to others through conversational hospitality, a crucial virtue to her stately southern disposition. Mrs. Burt was meek, quiet, kind, and plainly honest. And sharp too.
She taught (and loved) the written word. Her lessons were concise, but not for a lack of passion. More so the pithiness was an homage to Hemingway, Chopin, Fitzgerald, the poor troubled soul. She instructed college courses on masters of language, weaving these storytellers into her own terse, tidy diction, and bringing them, and their words, to life before us.
She was my teacher. One of the proudest moments of my college career came when she told me that she read portions of my test answers aloud to her husband on a road trip. Her essay tests were infamous slogs among students, and I liked to take the scenic route, weaving Harry Potter into my answer on The Crucible and spinning yarns to which Twain might approve in my responses about famous jumping frogs and the mighty Mississippi. Rather than discourage my playful peccadillos, she sought to encourage, empower, and enrich. More than a teacher, she was a builder—of young minds, souls. That was her way. Always.
After learning me up, she became one of my bosses. I had several. As a young employee at a small college, I worked wherever they would let me. I was as familiar with the campus lawnmower as I was the classroom. I tended to fields, drove buses, coached teams, and tried my hand at teaching writing courses.
During one such course, Mrs. Burt entered the room. She did so like she always did—quietly. She had warned me this would happen at some point in the semester. Having been an instructor for a few years, I was up for review. In other words, they needed to see if I was any good. Mrs. Burt would determine that for me.
Determining things for others was not unfamiliar terrain for this lifelong educator. She had counseled students on academic progress, careers, faith, relationships; with a grace built on kindness, she delicately brought possibilities to life, much like she had done to all those dead authors, and their words. She could take you apart and put you back together, with you none the wiser. Just better for being proximate to her soothing wisdom.
Between the class she had monitored and my assessment with her, I had received the offer for the dream job. Better pay, better locale. Better life? Perhaps. The Headmaster at that Never Land university, neatly tucked into the English midlands, sure thought so. I remember one recruitment email he dashed off my way before heading up to summit Mount Sinai—just a typical weekend over on “the continent.” The pros and cons list was a monstrosity of imbalance, yet I wasn’t sure. Some nagging thing held me back—I was more Moses in some existential Egypt than the mountaintop man glimpsing God.
After Mrs. Burt informed me I was not a terrible teacher and might even have a shot at being adequate, I confided in her about this job opportunity. There was no benefit to her in my leaving. In fact, it would actually be better for her and the school if I were to stay. I was cheap labor with a moldable future. She had to have known this. But she didn’t say it; she wasn’t interested in herself or her good. She was a life-giver, a builder, after all. A meek, kind personage who took beautiful things that lay dormant and brought life to them—to us.
She listened well to my quandary. And quandary it was. The twenties are the easiest of all decades for those removed from them. Whilst in that fated season, every decision feels weighted. Each choice laden with a sense of forever, no way back from this or that. You take a step toward the rest of your life, and, in so doing, you leave all other possibilities irrevocably behind.
Mrs. Burt saw this burdened thinking, as she likely had so many times before. When she was beyond certain that I had, in anguish, said all I needed to she replied, simply and kindly, “Well, Matt, this is exciting news. It appears like God has given you two excellent options.”
Where I saw only the future I’d be missing, she had the winsome perspective of noticing the present before me. I saw subtraction—one choice from two. She saw addition that would lead to a future multiplied. She saw hope. She saw the best before me and willed me to take it, whatever it happened to be; she wouldn’t begrudge me my choice, nor would my choice rob from the potential flourishing ahead on whatever path I strolled. Flourishing, after all, was a possibility for which we, in her eyes, were all worthy and wasn’t tied to a zip code or job title. It was tied, forever, to truth and purpose and character. She was a testament to all three.
I ended up staying, only to take a third unforeseen option just a few months later. Two excellent options had really been three all along. In life there is always, after all, more than meets the eye.
For decades that cliché had been true of this slight, charming woman. Quietly entering the classroom, taking her place at the front of it, she’d speak. And life was the repeated result.