Lessons Learned From Professor Carroll
A great man once told me that death is not the exception in this world, but the rule. Life, instead, is the exception. Everything dies, and it is only God Almighty Who is ever living. The irony in Professor Carroll’s passing is that when I faced difficulties in law school, he was my “go to” guy to talk these things out. My knee-jerk reaction to learning of his death was to, believe it or not, call him to talk about it. But as God’s plan would have it, that was not to be this time. Indeed, life is not the rule in this world, it is the exception. In the next world, however, life is the rule. And as John also means “ever living,” Professor Carroll should fit right in.
Professor Carroll first reached out to me in September 2010 when an unfortunate person was threatening to burn the Koran. He stopped me in the hallway, only to tell me that as a Christian, he condemned the act. With humility, he asked me not to judge Christians by that person’s actions. It broke my heart then, and it breaks my heart now that he felt the need to have to clarify his religious perspective because of the actions of another. I had no idea who I was getting involved with, but I knew right then I was dealing with someone special. I just had no idea how special.
As I look over the hundreds of emails we exchanged since that initial meeting, and ponder over the countless lengthy conversations, the stolen five minute office pop in discussions, and the grab you in the hallway rants—I can’t help but reflect over the unique lessons I learned from him. I am good at only a few things. I know how to make my wife laugh, I’m pretty good at changing diapers, and every now and then, I write something that might be worth reading. This is one of those times—solely because of who this writing is about. These are the lessons I learned from Professor John F. Carroll.
Professor Carroll was a lover of God and of God’s actions. He did not believe in chance. We spoke often about the deliberateness of God’s actions, of our interactions, of our relationship. He walked in God’s path and followed Christ’s example. I see no coincidence that just two weeks ago, he and I took a walk around the same lake where he died, and he told me his family history in detail, all the way from the time of his great grandfather. In 20/20 hindsight, it almost feels like he knew another chance like that may not come. The honor I feel to have received that family history is not something I can express in words.
When I asked Professor Carroll to be the faculty advisor for the yet developing Muslim Law Student Association, I wrote, “I’m confident that our different backgrounds yet common goal will cater to the underlying theme of pluralism I hope MLSA will foster. I already know my own perspective as a Muslim, but I cannot possibly know the perspective of a Christian on my own. I think the sheer availability to collaborate as we tackle potentially tough or far reaching issues will be a great strength going forward.” In what I soon realized was classic Professor Carroll humility and compassion he replied, “Thank you for your kind words. As I get to know you better, I am beginning to realize that I cannot understand even the Christian perspective without also understanding your perspective.” He graciously accepted the role, and became the catalyst that changed countless lives. Humility in God’s path—that was Professor Carroll defined.
Professor Carroll valued family more than anything. As a father myself, his example was priceless. He never cancelled a meeting we had scheduled for work or business reasons—but he did for his children. To be sure, even those were few and far between as I saw immediately that he viewed his students as extensions of his family. But the lesson learned was simple yet often forgotten—work supports family, never the opposite. Family, therefore, must always take precedence. Children must always take precedence. Professor Carroll had a brilliantly successful career, but was an even more successful father—because he put his children first. As the pressures of finding a career to support my family increase, I find solace that the right approach is one that puts my son first, now and always.
Professor Carroll would often stop me in the hallway completely out of the blue and say, “Did I ever tell you that I’m married to the single most incredible woman in the world?” I would smile and respond, “I think so, but remind me again why?” Then, his piercing blue eyes would light up like the Fourth of July and he’d grin his patented grin (pun intended) and say, “Well her name is Maria, and she’s just outta this world.” And then, without pausing he would add, “Can I tell you why?” Laughing to myself and at the lovey dovey look in his eyes I would respond, “Sure, I would love to hear it.” Invariably he would throw his head back and start, “Ohhh you’re not gonna believe it…” a preface statement to him then telling me the latest and greatest thing he realized about her. As my wife and I celebrate five years together this year, the lesson I learned from Professor Carroll is profound; Never be satisfied with merely falling in love years ago. Without saying it even once, and only leading by example, Professor Carroll taught me that if I can’t find new things to love about my wife as the years pass by, then not only am I doing our marriage a disservice, but I’m doing my wife a disservice. A healthy and lasting marriage depends on continuously learning how to appreciate one another, not merely in vows made years ago. This is how he lived his life with his wonderful Wife, and what a beautiful example they set.
Professor Carroll loathed mere words and instead embraced action, often citing James 2:14-26, that faith without works is dead. Every time we concluded a meeting in his office, either he, or I would say a prayer for God to strengthen us in our resolve to fulfill the task we had set out to complete. And then, he would work like a man possessed, one who somehow knew that it would soon be time to return to his Creator. He refused to put things off until tomorrow because of his knowledge that it might not come, because of his recognition of God’s Grace in having given him today, so why waste it? His lesson was one of abolishing complacency, destroying procrastination, and carpe diem.
Professor Carroll was a brilliant scholar and an even more gifted teacher. He did not believe in memorization–he believed in learning. He spent an entire semester coaching myself and a fellow law student, Brandon Jaycox, on how to become better negotiators. But his lesson had a deeper meaning for life. We cannot memorize how to be compassionate, sincere, loving, and gracious. We can only learn these behaviors, and impart them to others. Recognizing this principle, Professor Carroll made sure his students learned, never memorized. Recognizing this principle, Professor Carroll made sure his students learned how to be compassionate, sincere practitioners, not plastic replicas. He invited his students to his home to have dinner with his wonderful family. My family and I were so blessed to have dinner at the Carroll residence last year. During a dinner at our home months later, Professor Carroll and I sat out on my back porch for what seemed like hours, discussing life, family, children, and yes, even the law. It seemed no matter the topic, Professor Carroll was able to teach it in ways few others could even begin to comprehend.
I can go on about the lessons Professor Carroll taught me, but I will stop with this last one for now. Perhaps most remarkable about all of the above experiences I’ve shared is that I never once had Professor Carroll as my Professor. And his gracious treatment of me was not the exception, but the rule. The more I reflect on his contribution to humanity, the more I am in awe of his wonderful commitment to the greater good.
An ancient proverb reminds us that when a person is born, he is crying in pain while everyone else is laughing in joy. And that when that person dies, he is laughing in joy while everyone else is crying in pain. Just as the crying child may not understand why everyone is laughing at his trauma, we, as children of God, cannot fully comprehend Professor Carroll’s laughter as we shed our tears. I take comfort, however, in knowing that his laughter is from basking in God’s glory and in knowing that we will soon meet again, God willing. His laughter is in knowing that this world, this life, is a test, and by God’s Grace, Professor Carroll passed that test. And thus the final lesson; one demonstrated even through his death.
Professor Carroll reminds us that once we exert our God-given efforts to our full capacity, we must have trust in God that He will fulfill His promise, and provide as only He can. My prayer is not only for Professor Carroll, but for his family. May God provide for them as He always has, as only He can, and continue to comfort them in this time of trial. I can provide them only with the words of the Qur’an which reminds believers, “From God we are and to God must we return,” and the words that Professor Carroll himself shared with me in an email many months ago as I struggled through a difficulty of my own, “my prayer for you tonight is from the Unique One, Jesus, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.””
So take heart my friends, and congratulate Professor Carroll, for he too has overcome the world. He was no doubt too good for it. When our time comes, may it also be because we have overcome the world.
Until we meet again Professor Carroll, peace be upon you.
The Christian Muslim Bridge at Richmond Law: Op Ed about Professor Carroll published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 17, 2012