A Master Teacher

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When a ragged edge of the Atlantic careened over the prow and swallowed my knees, my first thought was, Is it ok that the side of the boat is parallel to the water?

“Jibe! JIBE!” Ferg shouted.  He shoved Scottie from the helm and seized the tiller. There was a curse word, the sea retreated from its post just inches from my face, and the boat was aright again.  I sucked a draught of salty air as if zealous for it, then glanced at Scottie. His hands shook and his chest heaved as he crouched on the floor of the boat.  He avoided my gaze, his thoughts still captive to the horror of the preceding minute. Then, the realization dawned: My husband almost capsized my boss’ boat.  Oh, crap!

Ferg wrapped his hands around Scottie’s still-trembling forearm, hoisted him to his feet, and guided him back to the tiller.  “Now, son, you need to listen.  You were doing all right.  But when I say jibe, you need to jibe.”  His Southern drawl rolled as long and loping as ever, but I could detect the tension beneath the surface, a taut cord fraying between the words.  “Now, do it again.”

Do it again.  Ferg wrapped Scottie’s still-tremulous hand around the tiller, just has he had coaxed my fingers into the grips of a laparoscopic bowel grasper so many times years earlier.  He hovered for a moment, then stepped back and watched Scottie in silence.  I recognized the stance, the suspended breath, the clenched teeth.  I recognized his struggle against the most natural and powerful instinct: to steal the instrument out of the novice’s hands, limit the damage, and end the debacle.

Instead, he hovered and watched.  “Easy,” he whistled to Scottie.  The small bowel fumbled out of my graspers.  “Not so rough!”  My stitch tore the serosa.  With each bristle, each comment, I watched Scottie wrangle the tiller, but saw myself in the dimness of a laparoscopic operating room, holding my own breath, fighting to steady my own feeble hand.

Ferg prefaced every case with a warm-up.  First came the technical preparation: he recited the steps in crisp precision.  The intent was to model for us how to think about a case, how to ready ourselves to complete it independently.  Then, there was the emotional preparedness.  “Now during this operation, I may call you all sorts of horrible names.  I may even call you a cretin.  And at that time, I absolutely mean it.”  (The more junior you were at this point, the more quickly you wanted to scramble for Propranolol.)  “But I only mean it for that moment.  Truly.  Just for that moment, and then everything is fine.”

And everything was fine.  There was swearing, there was name calling.  There was the anger of a surgeon who cared more about the welfare of his patients than about anything else in existence.  And then, there was calm, and the mandate, “Do it again.”  Whereas many surgeons were happy to teach as long as things went smoothly, Ferg understood that meaningful learning required struggle.  The breaking down and building up, the ripening, the mastery, occurred during the moments when learners tumbled awkwardly through moves, and when perspiration dotted brows.  Ferg honored the hard moments, and respected our right to claim them.

On the boat that day, after the near-capsizement, I asked him, “How do you go about teaching?”

He sipped his gin and tonic, and tracked a lobster scuttling across the ocean floor.  (Scottie and I had grounded the boat in a shallow inlet 20 miles from the marina.)  “Well.”  Another sip.  “I just think of what it’s like to be a resident.  And then I try to teach them the way they need to be taught.”

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