As the small plane bumped through the clouds to settle on the rather small airport tarmac in the rural university town of Ithaca, New York, I recalled that landing 32 years ago in the very same place.
I was far more nervous than excited to study at this superb Ivy League school, Cornell University, known at the time for greats like the astronomer Carl Sagan and the developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner.
It was Sagan, after all, who brought home to South African television screens the marvels of the universe through his popular science series, Cosmos.
I would find out later that fellow graduate students would share the same apprehensions. Will they tell me that they had made a mistake with my selection? Will I survive the rigours of the programme?
After all, I was a simple high school science teacher from Cape Town who certainly did not regard himself as very smart at all.
But here I was on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world – the gorges and natural waterfalls on campus are simply stunning – about to meet my adviser.
Joseph Novak was a giant in the field of science education. He had developed concept mapping as a tool for generating meaning in the teaching and learning of science.
Nervously, I knocked on the door of Professor Novak. To my surprise, his office was extremely small (lesson number one, what’s in your head matters more than the size of your office) and books covered all the walls.
“You must be the man from Africa,” said the smiling professor. “My name is Joe,” he said in a way that made clear that South African formalities like professor voor-en-agter is not how you address academics on this side of the Atlantic (lesson number two, your worth as a scholar is not measured by the titles adorning your name).
Then Joe did something that would forever change my life. He turned, went to one of his bookshelves, and returned with a thick manuscript.
“This book I am writing should have been with the publisher a few weeks ago; but I wanted to have your feedback before I send it off.”
It was the first time that I wet myself in public. What? Me? Feedback? I went into something of a mild depression as I slowly made my way back to the family housing unit on the other end of campus.
What on earth could I possibly have to say? Surely he would read my comments and then realise they made a mistake with the man from Africa? Was this a test?
It was the time just before personal computers and I could not use a typewriter as yet – so I wrote and rewrote comments on a manuscript the content of which I barely understood.
Years later I discovered what Joe was really up to. Joe is a genuine person, and so he probably did want to hear my comments on his forthcoming book.
But I now know what he was really teaching me that day: I believe in you. I trust you as a student but also as a colleague. I know that you have something to say. I would like to hear from you.
Up to that point, the entire messaging system from most of my undergraduate teachers was exactly the opposite.
To this day I remember my South African lecturers telling a very large class on day one of Introductory Chemistry – by the end of the first semester those who remain would be able to fit into the telephone booth on campus.
What Joe was doing was not only something new, it was completely radical to my experience.
Now I was back at Cornell a few weeks ago but this time to pay tribute as a professor to the professors who taught me.
Last week was graduation at the University of the Free State and the emails rolled in.
One was from Sanelisiwe Khambule, a young woman I recruited from her school in Umlazi.
She recalls: “I will never forget the day you walked into our small life science lab at Menzi High because it was the day my life changed. I am graduating this Tuesday (BSc Forensic Science) and if it were up to me you would be there, along with my late principal Mr Mshololo.”
I remember that what I said that day to her class in Umlazi was a localised version of what Joe Novak had taught me: “I believe in you. I trust you. I know you can change South Africa and the world.”