Blessings: An Essay about Teaching
On the first day of class we shove furniture, re-arranging the desk chairs to form a big arc. With Crayola markers we letter nametags and for about two weeks hang them over the edges of our desks so we can know who we are.
English 111 and English 112 comprise our university’s first-year composition sequence. I teach one or the other of these courses every semester. We meet on the same two days of the week, the same hour of the day, always in 116 Humanities. Every Tuesday we bring writing, either work in process or finished essay with an author’s note and a process memo. On Tuesdays we read our writing aloud to each other and respond. On the days we call our writing finished, we put it on the table, pick up the writing of a classmate, and read and respond. In fact, I refer to this routine as “the great offering” because it is—the best words, sentences, and paragraphs we have come up with for that moment.
On Thursdays we try out approaches to revision, craft lessons on writing. Every three or four weeks we talk about a book. This fall my English 112 students are reading The Black Notebooks by Toi Dericotte, The Force of Spirit by Scott Russell Sanders, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. These are good books, beautifully written with rich detail, and they support the theme for this section—“The Reflective Woman, the Reflective Man.”
From the outside, Grundtvig’s Kirke in Copenhagen looks just like the pictures—blonde brick, a tall steeple with a stair-step red tile roof. Inside, the ceiling soars. What is not standard in the U.S. churches, but customary in Danish churches, is the large model of a ship that hangs above the center aisle, a reminder of seafarers. The dark brown chairs range forward on either side up the center aisle to the altar rail that seems a block away. At the back of the church, the massive pipes of the organ shine far above the large wooden double doors into the sanctuary. The pastor looks straight out of H.C. Andersen—a slender robe of black cloth, a white ruff around his neck. The pulpit is above the side aisle, up a few steps from where the congregation sits. When the organ plays the first hymn I sing with vigor, in all the Danish I can remember. I am not afraid of making a spectacle because in congregational singing my mispronunciations will be covered over by the real Danes. When later in the service we come to the Lord’s Prayer, I know what it is, not for each word I understand, but for the cadence and rhythm of the speaking.
As an infant I was baptized in the Danish Lutheran Church, not at Grundtvig’s, but at Holmen’s Kirke in Copenhagen. When I was eight our family moved from Denmark to the midwest. We lived in a university town, in an old neighborhood in a modest old white frame house with a wrap around porch within walking distance of the campus where my father had joined the faculty. We didn’t have a car, so we joined the nearest church we could find, First United Methodist six blocks away.
It was here that I learned to “do” church. I learned the order of the Christian calendar and the colors of the church year. The purple of Advent comes first, then the white of Christmas and Christmastide, then the purple of Ash Wednesday and Lent, Holy Week beginning with Palm Sunday, and then Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the white of Easter, the red of Pentecost that follows, the green of ordinary time.
Our family worshipped at First Church every Sunday. The service followed a pattern: organ prelude, choral call to worship, hymn, affirmation of faith, the pastoral prayer always concluded by the Sanctuary Choir singing the three-fold “Amen,” the offering, sermon, closing hymn, and the organ postlude. Except for the numbers of the hymns and the weekly announcements, no one really needed the bulletin. Some of this we did together--sing, say the affirmation of faith, repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Some we did by ourselves—silent prayers.
Much later, after Bill and I married and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and Highland United Methodist Church I still knew how to “do” church. In 1970 we returned to Nebraska and to the congregation where I had grown up. Early service had moved to West Vestry and Doug Darling played the drums accompanying Randy Dinsdale on the piano. We didn’t sing from the hymnal, but from paperbacks—“The Genesis Songbook,” and the “Songbook for Saints and Sinners.” But I still knew. Here in the south, where the voices are softer and gentler than Midwest voices, I still know.
In all this order, routine, and familiarity of church I learned how Methodists understand what it is to be Christian. “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” The eighth chapter of Romans: “In all things, God works for good . . . .” The voice of the angel, “Be not afraid.” Words of hymns: “Great is thy faithfulness . . . . morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand has provided. . . .” And this one-verse hymn: “And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”
And church taught me how to be a citizen. For twenty years our congregation sponsored an annual peace workshop with speakers that included Matthew Fox, Jim Wallis, and Helen Caldecott. The congregation became home base for the neighborhood community organization that worked to revitalize the old neighborhood and business district, that lobbied the City Council for better bus routes, and fought to keep adequate health care in that part of town. Before things became politically correct, the language of laity and clergy in worship and work became inclusive. God was both male and female, Him and Her, Father and Mother.
knowing why I am the way I am
why things work the way they do
what’s in front of me
and the freedom that comes
from all this knowing
books that help me see life
in good and surprising ways
who think intelligently
chuckle with me
not at me
who are alive to the world
who have a sense of who they are
and what they can be
greater than the immediate day to day
who do good work in their jobs
in their hobbies
so I see what’s possible for me
and who already know how to be grown-ups
so I can learn from them
how to be a grown-up, too.
I don’t agree with the black banners
and streamers for round birthdays
of friends and family turning 40, 50, 60.
These big birthdays are times to celebrate
with thanksgiving, humility, and gratitude.
I made it.
And I get to do another day
What is characteristic for me is what is characteristic of church as I have experienced it since I was eight. And that’s why I teach the way I do -- order, purpose, routines I can count on, words I can count on, intelligence, welcomes for small and big surprises, celebrations for what is possible, a place where I feel at home.
Just like the church bulletin, class has a bulletin—the syllabus. And like the church newsletter, class also has a way for us to keep in touch with the entire flock, a listserv to which all of us can post questions and observations and reminders about our work.
With all the order of church, there still are places for surprises—unusually beautifully sung hymns and anthems, congregational prayers, baptisms, new member receptions. The same is true in class. Within all the order, there is room for surprise—essays on illness, death, accidents, upbringing, church mothers, basketball shoes, road trips, softball, baseball, grandmothers, moms, dads, being a twin.
As the words of the church have words of hope—“make you shine like the sun”-- I like my classroom to have words of hope, too, words students can remember, especially as they continue through college, especially when writing is hard.
“Your opening scene at Snappy’s? It will be a long time before I forget that.” Snappy’s is a regional pizza place. Hank smiles. He knows he did something really well when he wrote that scene.
“You are really good with details. See?” I point to a paragraph in another student’s writing.
“Do you tell all your students this?”
“No, only those who do them well, the way you do.” J.D. smiles.
“Your dialogue sounds like real talk and that’s not easy to do, but you do it.”
In her next draft, Judith uses even more dialogue. And it still sounds like real talk.
The church wants people to feel welcome, safe, and included. “Be not afraid.” I also want my students to feel welcome, safe, and included, to respect each other and the literacies each of us brings to class and that make the knowledge of the classroom. That’s why inclusive language, also, matters as much in class as it does in church.
When things work best in class it’s because we have come together as a community of writers respectful and grateful for each other’s voices. That’s why absences bother me, late arrivals, students without their work, or work done barely. How can we be in community with someone who isn’t in class, offer words of hope to each other when there’s nothing or too little in writing or too little engagement with the reading to offer hope from?
Wendy Wilson Greer has edited a collection of the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life. She quotes Nouwen:
“The characteristic of the blessed ones is that, wherever they go, they always speak words of blessing . . . The blessed one always blesses. And people want to be blessed! This is so apparent wherever you go. No one is brought to life through curses, gossip, accusations, or blaming. There is so much of that taking place around us all the time. And it calls forth only darkness, destruction, and death. As the ‘blessed ones,’ we can walk through this world and offer blessings. It doesn’t require much effort . . . When we hear within ourselves the voice calling us by name and blessing us, the darkness no longer distracts us. The voice that calls us the Beloved will give us words to bless others and reveal to them that they are no less blessed than we.”
This is what doing church keeps teaching me. It’s what I would like my classes to keep teaching me, too.