The second sociology class I ever took was Sociology of Deviant Behavior. Aside from the introductory class I took as a freshman, I had not pursued the subject because I had been busy with other required classes. When I was registering for classes toward the end of sophomore year, I stumbled on the course description for the class: “a sociological analysis of the nature, cause, and societal reactions to deviant behavior, including mental illness, suicide, drug and alcohol addiction, and sexual deviation.” Immediately, I was intrigued.
When I walked into the classroom the fall of my junior year, my usual first-day-of-class nerves were almost immediately calmed by the tall, gray man who followed shortly after. He bore thin-framed oval glasses, a cotton cavas tote bag, and a beaming smile. He greeted our class that way each day, asking each of us to share any interesting news in the world or our own lives before beginning a new lesson. We learned about various forms of deviance, actions or behaviors that violated social norms—and every time Mr. Duffy taught us something new, he would remind us that each deviation from social norms was “not bad, just different.” He encouraged us to learn and celebrate these differences. They were what made the world special.
One day, Mr. Duffy shared something with us, a blog posted through the BBC by a young Pakistani girl who was championing for girls’ and women’s rights to education. She wrote about living in Pakistan under Taliban threats to deny her said education. Worried that the Taliban would find her, Malala Yousafzai wrote under the name Gul Makai; soon after, her real identity was revealed. In October of 2012, at the same time I sat comfortably in classroom after classroom and received my tertiary education, 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai was riding home from school on the bus. A gunman stopped the bus, boarded it, and shot her in the head, injuring two other girls as well. Malala was in critical condition, but eventually recovered from her injuries and continues to advocate for girls’ education.
We discussed Malala a few times that semester following the attack, but her story has stuck with me since then. Since that October day, she has gone on to write an autobiography, create a fund for education, open a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and start the social media trend #BooksNotBullets. Long after that one semester was over, I continued to reach out to Mr. Duffy whenever I heard news about Malala’s many successes. We emailed and talked about other things, of course, like how he had inspired me to further study sociology and how important travel was to learning. But something always brought us back to Malala.
“I can’t count the number of times I thought about you the last couple of days as interviews with Malala were broadcast in this country. I suspect that you and I will always have that connection through her,” he wrote me the February I was living in Ireland. “You know, I type with one finger so the length of this e-mail is a testament to how happy I am to hear from you. Your former roommate is in one of my classes and has been asked by me several times to say hello.”
In another email, Mr. Duffy told me that he wondered if, for the rest of his life, every time he heard something about Malala he would feel “an all-consuming need to contact me.” He always worried that Malala’s father had pressured her into a life of activism, and that her safety was still at risk.“I wonder,” he said,“how many Malalas there are that we will never hear about… How many killed, victimized in acid attacks, too fearful to attend school, not allowed by family to receive an education. Big questions…asked from the comfort of a charming New England University campus. But I am so encouraged by students like you willing to venture out into other cultures to become ‘citizens of the world.'” He had a humbled curiosity about the world, one that I share even to this day.
The fall semester after I had returned from studying abroad, I met with my old professor to catch up. We sat in his office while he listened to me go on and on and on about my semester abroad. I knew my stories would soon become annoying and unwelcome to some, but Mr. Duffy sat there and genuinely smiled at every word I said. He easily welcomed my passion and my desire to share it with him.
I emailed Mr. Duffy two years, near to the day, after Malala had been shot by the Taliban. I had graduated months earlier, but there was something important to share: Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. She was 17 years old and the youngest person to ever receive the award. We talked only briefly. He told me that I was remembered fondly. That he and I shared a special appreciation for Malala’s grace, wisdom, and courage. That he had wonderful memories of my friends and I filling the halls of our university with mischief, humor, and happy voices.
A documentary film, He Named Me Malala, will be released next month, chronicling some of Malala’s journey since the attack.
Earlier this week, one of my former college roommates sent a message to me and a couple of other friends, informing us that our beloved professor had passed away. I was immediately heartbroken at the thought of such an incredible soul leaving this world. But later that evening, I logged onto Facebook to see that many of my college friends had shared news of his passing as well. Every single one of them said that Mr. Duffy had been one of their favorite professors, that his kindness and compassion had been a joy to experience. Every. Single. One.
I wavered back and forth over whether I should write this post or not—my own story with Mr. Duffy. But I felt selfish to keep his wisdom and influence all to myself, especially because he had given me so much. He will never see Malala’s film, but I already believe it will change the world, just as everything that Malala has done so far. That he would be proud she is making a difference. And every time I hear of the Pakistani girl who stood up for girls’ rights to education around the world, I will think fondly of the professor who taught me more in one semester than I have learned in much of the rest of my life.
His last words to me were “Be well and be happy,” and I only hope that the last of his days were filled with much of the same.