At the mid-term of first semester, I received Bs in all of my courses, an achievement far below what was expected of me. The Honors Program director instructed me to see every one of my professors and find out what I needed to do to improve my performance. Humiliated, I went to each one only to learn that most of them simply gave blanket grades at mid-terms, and that I was in fact on track for As in most of my classes. The only class in which I did not receive a blanket grade was the B-plus I got in PHUN 101, Fr. Ryan’s tag for Honors Philosophy and Logic. So, as directed, I went to see Fr. Ryan in his office. The B-plus in his class really worried me, as it was a real grade. My roommate, Katie McFaul, received an A-minus. Since our grades on quizzes and papers had been identical to that point, I did not understand why she got the higher grade. With no preface, I simply blurted that out when I got to his office. Ryan looked at me in total surprise, and then burst out laughing. He explained that both of us were in that range, and he simply entered one or the other for everyone. For the rest of my career at Gonzaga, after he asked me how I was doing, he would then ask how Katie was doing.
During that semester, he instituted the practice of inviting any student who was chatting, or otherwise not attending to class, to come sit right next to him in the “endowed chair of permanent inattention.” He said this with a straight face and dignified tone. It took us all a bit to understand that this was both a reprimand and a joke. I earned one EVIL writ large in the margin of one of my pages. When I went to his office to find out why, he said this: “Well, Miss Schneider, you have split your infinitive. Now, you are far too bright to have done that mistakenly, so I can only assume you have mangled the English language deliberately, and that is evil!” I later learned that this was a favorite practice of his because it always had the effect of bringing students to his office, which is what he was after in the first place. I understand he eventually obtained a rubber stamp with the word evil.
As a junior, I served as his assistant. My duties included grading the weekly logic quiz. If a student made a mistake, that student had to come my Friday afternoon session to remediate his or her error. During one such session, carried on in his office, I was grading the quiz of a student I had never met as she never once made a mistake. According to his answer key, this appeared to be her first error. I was so surprised that I read her answer again, and determined that, in fact, the student was right and Ryan inadvertently had left an undistributed middle term in his syllogism. When I hesitantly asked if it was possible that his answer key was wrong, he again gave me that signature surprise look, reviewed the answer key, and once again burst out laughing at his own mistake.
Ryan’s sense of humor, his clear affection for his students, and his righteous indignation at the follies of bureaucracy become apparent on fairly short acquaintance. His deep decency and insight, however, sometimes take longer to reveal themselves. Once, I was really struggling with how to deal with someone who had lied to me. He asked about the circumstances, and then said, “Most of the time, people are as honest as they can stand to be.” Ever since, when I encounter dishonesty, I recall that and contemplate what it is that stops the other person from being honest, and it becomes about understanding that person rather than taking offense. Another time, worrying about raising my children, he passed on to me the advice one of his aunts had offered. “All it takes to raise children well is to take them home and love them.” And then, this being Ryan, fully aware of the enormity of what it takes to love someone, he again burst out laughing.
Editor’s note: Now associate dean of the College of Innovative Learning at the University of Toledo, Barbara Schneider also was a member of the first freshman class taught by Father Ryan at Gonzaga.