The word that follows that drawn breath: What the new year holds for us in class this term

There is that moment at the beginning of the academic year when the professor comes into the classroom, sets down his or her stack of papers and books, moves to the podium and begins class.   It is a very mundane moment in many ways.  Students chatter away, texting friends, drinking expensive espresso drinks in shimmering travel mugs with café logos you don’t get the reference to and you move your papers around, look at the technology that surrounds you more and more each year and take a deep breath as you launch into your ‘welcome’ speech.

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Yet as a faculty member those few seconds between setting down my briefcase and books and when I turn to face my new class and begin to speak is a sacred moment like no other.  Something happens in those brief moments that I wish I could explain to my students but I don’t think they would understand. Perhaps I sell them short in this.  I don’t know.   It is a strange rush of anxiety (“Is this class really going to come together?”) a thrill of introducing new students to material you hold so dear (“Can’t wait to read that passage to them”) and the look of strangers meeting in blank gaze who will become people who you will care about in ways that as a teacher who sees hundreds of students a year is always surprising.

This strange ability to not only care but deeply love these students is always a shock to me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.

This infinite capacity of the human heart to allow people you meet through the medium of an ancient text in the context of this artificial arena of the mind called a university classroom to touch you, hurt you, stir you to wonder, to break your heart and to awaken memories of when you also first heard a philosophical argument, a Chilean poem, a Shakespearean sonnet, a rising note borne on the bow of a cellist breathing life into Bach across the centuries or the darken light of a Dutch master whose subject is an aged women inclining her head over the Scriptures with such gentle purpose that angels seem to brush wingtips across the oils on the canvas in your midst is awe-inspiring to be sure.

And in those moments that appear and disappear oh-so-fleetingly over the weeks of a term will flame up unannounced like a roman candle in a subterranean cave – so sudden and crisp as to blind you before giving way to sight.  Yet they happen again and again – sometimes only a flickering flame on a wet match of a poorly thought out question, or sometimes akin to a signal flare of desperation as the student is grasping for anything to support not only their understanding of the subject in the churning sea  of material they are glupping down, but some buoyancy for their very soul.

In such moments something more than learning happens or mastery of material.  In such moments whether they are but a whisper or akin to Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yap from the rooftops of the world’ show us to be human at long last.  These moments allow us to step away from the world that swirls around us, the technology that blinds and deafen us to ourselves and the humanity of others, the self-consciousness and obsession with our own needs and problems and even separated from the so-called security of that which we put our trust in more than God which is the artifice of our public self.  Like the striking of high C to blast apart a wine glass from across the room, these moments explode with the tinkling of glass upon the floor as we open ourselves up to one another in the space of a question, a point of clarification, a nob of the head in agreement, a glance at the art on the screen with unveiled eyes and the sigh of resignation that what had been held as true in small or large ways is now forever changed.

When I stand at the podium on Monday, setting down my books and rustling papers to mask that breath I draw in deeply before I speak, this is what is rushing through my head.  That something more sacred than learning will happen in spite of my best efforts as a professor and the material I put before us.  No, what will happen is the parting of a sea that separates human from human and human from the God of the universe.

What happens is holy.

What happens is redemptive.

What happens is more than I could have ever planned and if I am not careful midst all the papers and exams and small group exercises I could miss it.

In that breath there is always the option to just say “no… I can’t do this again.  The price is too high.”  The option to walk away, to drive away, to fly away is always there for student and professor alike.

But on Monday I plan to draw my breath, look into the eyes of my students, and welcome them to this moment together.  It will be probably fairly anticlimactic for some – course assignments will be discussed, the texts we will read, who the authors are, when the midterm and final will be.  But these furrows into the soil that will seem mundane are the channel markers of Grace in ways none of us can expect.  I know this because this isn’t new to me.  I have seen Grace show up again and again which is why I know how vulnerable and painful this journey will be for some.

But I will draw that breath again as I have many times before.

And I will say the word that I am finding is a much deeper well than I could have imagined.

I will say…

“Welcome”

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