Mark Francek is professor of geography and in his 25th year at CMU. He’s won numerous teaching awards, including Michigan Professor of the Year in 2002, awarded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the National Council for Geographic Education Distinguished Teaching Award in 2008. He and his wife, Suezell, have three children and two stepchildren.
Six years ago I had the scare of my life. I was diagnosed with non- Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer. That was a life changer, there.
Life is so fragile. You have to value every day. I’m free of cancer now, but it stays in your system and it can be reactivated. Ten years from now, five years from now, will I have a chance to leave these messages?
I don’t tell every class about the cancer. I don’t want them to treat me differently, like “Poor Mark.” Maybe I should tell them. People hear the “Big C” and they think, “The end.” Maybe I need to show them it’s not the end.
I’m first-generation college. I grew up in a lower income, working class neighborhood in an alcoholic family that was dysfunctional in many ways. I saw a lot of negative things growing up. Those were life lessons for me. An aunt, Jean Salerno, helped raise me. She believed in me. She said, “You will go to college.” Today, my wife, Sue, my kids and my grandkids continue to believe in me.
It’s so important to have somebody backing you up and believing in you. I try to pick one or two students every semester who have an extra need to be believed in. I listen to them, instead of offering advice. We often listen with the intent to say something, rather than listening just to listen. Take the time out from the web, from Facebook, from tweets, to really listen. To believe.
I’ve pedaled across America, and I’ve seen a lot of great things. I learned it’s not the destination that counts; it’s the journey. There were six of us one year – I was a grad student at the time – and we were biking to Vancouver, British Columbia.
We had taken a vial of ocean water from Charleston, S.C., and after we traveled the 3,747 miles to British Columbia, we poured the Atlantic Ocean water into the Pacific.
But it was anticlimactic, in a way. We expected cherubs to sing “Hallelujah,” but there was no Hallelujah moment. We realized it was the every day interactions that really mattered– the conversations we had with the local folks, feeling the sun on our faces, the dew glistening in the sun, the laughter of a good joke, the incredible generosity people gave us. They fed us dinner, let us sleep in their houses.
You need to value every day, because you don’t know when it’s all going to end. Revel in each moment. Go to a river and just stop. Listen for one minute. How many sounds can you hear? Robins? The wind past your ears? The sigh of rustling leaves? Just tune into that. We need that.
Have an attitude of appreciation. Be thankful for the gifts. You’re breathing. You’ve got two lungs. It’s a great day.