Letter to alumni

You changed the way I taught, encouraging my own natural orientation to mentor the soul, not just the intellect or even the heart.

Photo: Brian Stethem

HELLO ALUMS FROM 1970-2017!

Yikes. That sounds like a ridiculous period of time, especially since I started at Cal Lutheran only 11 years after the school was founded. I won’t take you down too much of a memory trail but it does strike home to me how many of you are out there. Since my retirement was announced, I have had many wonderful messages and I want to share one of them with you. This young man graduated about 10 years ago I think and writes with the brevity of a Zen master, “I saw that you were retiring. I cried. Many things to say.” Many of you will remember the quotation I used for some of the writing assignments I threw at you. It’s from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,

Of cabbages and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot

And whether pigs have wings.”

So, yes, there is much to say, but there is also the power of silence. That’s why I love the tears. I accept them as the most appropriate of joyful, existential gifts. But I shall attempt to say something, namely a few thoughts on what you have been teaching me as I have been teaching you. I often think of the Langston Hughes poem, “Theme for English B” which concludes with the black student saying to his white prof,

As I learn from you,

I guess you learn from me—

although you’re older—and white—

and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

And in those few lines of poetry hides a secret. In ways that are both liberating and terrifying, we as human beings are defined both by our interconnectedness and by our degrees of separation. My students taught me about the “somewhats” in the classroom and more generally in life. You made me a better person, less ego involved and more empathetic with all differences by insisting on your own pages for English B. You gave me faith that learning is inevitable, awakening to greater consciousness is an arc always in the process of becoming, though I did sometimes have to get out of your way, ... and, perhaps, sometimes I had to get in your way. In any case, you changed the way I taught, encouraging my own natural orientation to mentor the soul not just the intellect or even the heart. I never burned out on this profession of a liberal arts education because you helped me keep the faith in that journey.

LEARNING MY LESSONS

Let me give you examples of what you taught me through three kinds of assignments I learned to give. The first kind of assignment was to approach your reading of literature as a lens through which to more clearly see and imagine and process your own story. The great critic M.H. Abrams suggests that this lens is both “mirror and lamp” reflecting our own subjectivity and illuminating a more objective geography as well. I reminded you that each individual story matters. You responded with years of autobiographical story telling that humbled and inspired me. I have my own mentors for these ideas, Peter Elbow for example, and it was a privilege to share their insights with you. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg indicates that writing from your experience develops a psyche as well as skills and Robert Coles says “the call of stories” is inextricably linked to the “moral imagination.” Autobiographical processing in writing made many of you better writers and, as it turned out, psychology majors. Oh no! There are so many individual examples, as many as there are stories of course, but one that stands out to this day for its starkness and purity is the student who wrote about his army experience in Grenada.

A second kind of assignment was to focus on the interdisciplinary connections that you brought into the classroom or discovered there. I reminded you that the world of ideas is always interconnected and that language becomes our tool for understanding both the ideas themselves and their relationships to one another and of course to ourselves. You taught me not to love language too much. There are other ways to integrate our learning. You helped me craft assignments that incorporated music, painting, sculpture, photography, multimedia, the body into the “telling” of how you understood something or how an insight came to life. I did insist on some words (how does what you created without words speak back to you now, what does it say?), but you gave me so much more. There was the woman who did an interpretive dance based on Sandra Cisneros’ poem “Four Skinny Trees.” She went on to Broadway. There was the painting by the Vietnamese immigrant who had experienced the horror of war and flight as a child who was at last able to speak through a surreal painting that still haunts me. She became an art teacher. There was the man who created a metal sculpture out of materials from his auto shop to reflect what he had taken with him from his immersion in Holocaust studies. It spoke volumes through its terrifying beauty. He is a police officer. There was the woman who sang in the choir and realized that Dr. Wyant Morton, our amazing choir director, had put music to the words of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” which is a collection of found children’s writings from the Holocaust, which we were reading in class. She wrote a paper on the illumination she experienced in that synchronistic moment where melody and words and performance and story met and exploded into meaning. One more: I remember the runner. Poetry in motion. Five hundred carefully honed pages of a semester’s writing from the sacred space of a runner’s high. I was in awe. I have no idea where this person is now. But I know their favorite song/lyric, Bob Dylan’s version of “Forever Young.”

A third kind of assignment was the infamous “state of mind” essay/project. Perhaps that’s overstating it, but I recently received a letter of recommendation request with the heading “Dear State of Mind Guy.” Hmmmmm. Too late to change now. This was usually an end of semester exercise in which through an autobiographical, thematic, research or creative lens you could express a central, focused insight or perspective that you could take with you from the course material which would be useful to you in the future. I reminded you that change and transformation are the great constants of learning. And you taught me … to love my students. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to mentor generations of alumni. I wanted you to have a sense of how much you gave to me. I wrote a poem for the Honor’s Day Banquet this year which I will share with you now as my farewell to this letter and to the career I will always cherish, thanks to you. The poem was inspired by one of my godchildren, an extraordinary woman, I say! It occurred to me after I finished the poem and allowed it to speak back to me that the surfer really is all of you as well. And I am riding the waves along with you.

GRATITUDE

I watch her

My godchild

The surfer

It’s her first time

Yet she strides across the sand

Yellow board tucked under her arm

Like an arrow,

The wood alive with its own pulse

Ready to erupt, ready to leave her behind

Should she lose courage

No chance of that

Suddenly she is past the surf

A water gazelle

(there should be such creatures)

Dancing among friends

She has always heard things I do not,

Will not know…

Child of God

I listen to her.

Her body movements become speech

As she measures it coming

Far off shore

This rift in the horizon

On it perhaps

A portal,

A wildness entering where oceans explode into language

Through the looking glass

Violence and Calm

Everything and Nothing

She rises on her board

And rides the chosen wave home

(as they say)

As if she had always done it

Knowing full well that next time might be different

(the water has told her so)

There is always just too much to bear.

Still…

Departures and Arrivals make us free

Daring the waves of earth and sky and sea

So this day she rises

Burning with Infinity

I raise my fist in solidarity

A young man paddles over

And hugs her

Adam and Eve I think

Ancient Chumash rising from the deep

She is telling him what she heard

All of it

“Thank You,” says the Sea.

CLU Magazine

 

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