A month or two ago a very dear friend of mine died. Her name was Doris Roethlisberger—as German as sauerkraut or, for that matter, my own name.

Doris was a schoolteacher. A century ago you would have called her a schoolmarm. And she looked the part. She taught English literature in the same school where I teach. (Doris would have objected to that sentence. She taught students not subject matter. But I would argue with her: “You’d better do both if you earn your salt as a teacher.”)

To put it in modern parlance, Doris was something else. She carried a permanent, militant grudge against mediocrity. It was the only streak of meanness I ever detected in her otherwise kind and gentle nature. Dissatisfaction is too weak a word for it—a holy revulsion against the status quo possessed her soul. She hated the second best with a perfect hatred—even when the second best was very good.

From the student who was desperately holding on to life in an academic environment to the bright student whose mind was like a sponge and always produced A work, she had the same answer: “You can do better than that.” And the way her nose curled up as she enunciated that reply demonstrated her utter disdain for A work by a student capable of A+.

“Work a little harder,” she urged. “Press on to the very best.”

It was the same holy zeal of the apostle Paul: “I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press forward to the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).

Doris’s passion for excellence could have molded her into a hard, critical judge of all of us, the imperfect creatures it was her lot to live with. ...

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