“Honey, go grab a piece of paper and a pen” she said.

I dutifully did.

I sat at her feet. 

She sat on the couch.

“I want you to write as fifty times” she said.

“Okay, Grandma” I said.

I started writing.

She drank a Red, White and Blue.

I kept writing.

She puffed on a Chesterfield as I scribbled the last “s”.

She got up, walked over to the TV and turned down the Carol Burnett Show.

I handed her my paper.

She did her mindful best.

She did.

She really did.

But, she just couldn’t contain it any longer and broke out into one of her uncontrollable raspy laughs.

“Shawnie, baby” she said “the word as only has one s not two”.

School was not easy. 

By the third grade, I was sorted in the slow reading group.

And, in fourth grade, I was falling further behind. That is, until my Mom ordered me to the dining room table one night before a vocabulary test.

“Sit down” she commanded. 

I did, of course.

She positioned herself across from me.

“You are not getting up until you memorize those definitions” she declared.

I hated every moment of it. But, my Mom is a formidable woman. So, I did.

I took the test the next day. And, the day after that, Ms. George, so excited by my improvement, announced my “A” on the test out loud to the class!

There’s a freeze frame of that moment in my mind. I can still see Ms. George standing in the corner. I remember where I was sitting. Something magical happened in that moment. Academically, I turned a corner that day.

My people taught me how to spell.

My people taught me my words.

And, my people told me that I was going to go to college.

I had no choice. Neither did my sister. She was the first to go to college in our family. A year later, I was the first to go away to college.

Not far.

It was just over an hour drive away.

We tied down a trunk full of clothing and box fan in the back of my truck. My people followed closely behind in the Oldsmobile. Upon arrival, we all walked into the Earlham College gymnasium. It was the day before two-a-days. I was there to play football. Seniors were welcoming the freshman players. That was me. And, they were huge. They were men.

My Grandma stopped in her tracks.

She looked at them. She looked at me. She looked back at them.

“Oh no” she said “we’re taking Shawnie home”. 

All my people grabbed me.

By the arms.

By the hands.

And, by the shoulders.

They pulled me in real close. 

“Ya’ll embarrassing me” I forcefully whispered.

“It will be all right” I told them.  

And, after a bit of convincing, they let me join the other players. 

I graduated from Earlham four years later. And, a few years after that (well, more than a few), all of my people (and a bunch of Kyra’s people too) swarmed the campus of Washington University in St. Louis to watch their boy who spelled as with more than one s get hooded by a Nobel-Prize Winning Economist

I was proud.

So were my people.

My Grandma in particular.

I know she was because our calls over the ensuing years shared a similar pattern.

She’d pick up.

I’d say “Hey Grandma”.

She would reply in surprised delight “Shawnie!”

And, at some point in the conversation, she would tell me that she told the hairdresser, pharmacist, or Schwan’s delivery guy that “My boy’s a professor!”

Near the end of my Grandma’s life, I did my best to keep up the calls. But, honestly, it was difficult to keep the conversations going. Because, sooner or later, she would start to drift off.

I would say “All right, Grandma I gotta go. I love you.”

And, she would repeat in defiant pride “My boy’s a professor!”

The standard academic ranks for a professor are:




I was the first. I am the second. Not sure I’ll be the last.

I don’t do what needs to be done to be a Full Professor.

Right now, I don’t want to do those things.

And, I’ll gladly sacrifice a title, a name, or being something.

If I can have the freedom to build, create and do something.

Doing beats being.

Hands down.

But, I’ve got to say. 

Being something, like a college graduate meant something to me and my people. It meant a lot. And, earning a PhD is an incredible reminder that I can do hard things. And, sometimes, being something puts you in a better position to do something.

So, when it comes to titles, names and such, all that I’m saying is be careful.

Their pursuit can bend you in ways that you may not want to be bent. And, their accompanied system of rewards and punishments can take you off task.

What is our task?

Oh, I don’t know.

That’s a mystery.

But, if I had to give an answer, I would say our task is to continuously strive to become better. Not better professors. But, better humans. And, I think the best way to accomplish that is by creating, building and doing things together with others.

You know.

Like learning how to spell “as” with just one “s”.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn

PS Nowadays, I spell as just fine. But, I still gotta pause while spelling “does” and  “Wednesday”.