No, it’s not Christmas. It’s the beginning of the academic year—a date that always comes too quickly and catches us by surprise.
The start of the academic year affects most of us, whether by the need to watch out for school zones or to fight crowds of people loading up on notebooks and crayons. Parks empty, pools close, and there’s a sense that we need to be serious again. Yeah, boo, yeah.
“Won’t you miss teaching?” People asked me that a lot when I retired as a professor from SMU and, effectively, broke away from the academic calendar for the first time since I was six years old. A part of that question was: “how much will you miss the rhythm of life as a teacher?”
I did miss it, especially at first. Nostalgia washed over me in August as I romanticized my memories of making new syllabi. I missed the fun of assisting with Freshmen Orientation and the crazy adventures dashing off with my new International Students to buy pots and pans.
More than anything, I missed idly chatting with my colleagues in our office doorways during the week before classes started. I can’t explain why, but there is something utterly delicious about looking towards a new semester. Even professors who adopt a negative tone towards their teaching find themselves caught up in it. “Well, maybe this year’s students will be better,” they grumble, but with a slight smile of anticipation.
But I was headed to the ranch for good, or so I thought. I’d hung up a sign on my the wooden door saying “Gone Fishing.” My empty office loomed out woefully (how sad the walls looked without the rows of bookcases and decades worth of framed pictures). I was sad too, but I had a lot to do: I had my hands full figuring out how to keep my goats, cows, and horses alive.
What did I know about livestock when I began? Try zero.
So, my new classroom became the Alvord Feed Store, under the tutelage of Roy. To describe him as a character out of “Central Casting” won’t suffice. To Roy I attribute one of the best remarks ever addressed to me: For someone who is supposed to be so educated, you sure don’t know nuttin’, do you?”
He was right. But he was willing to teach me. He, and a lot of others. No academic schedule dictated this classroom: just the realities of the agricultural and breeding season.
And I did learn, with certain disasters along the way (the worst being losing one of my loveliest goats to pregnancy toxemia because I didn’t realize what was happening). Many times, I found myself wishing I could have brought the wisdom and skills of ranching to my life as an academic, starting with faculty meetings. There’s a certain beauty in how one grabs the horn of a stinky buck and drags him back to the barn that could have been useful.
Later, new ventures would drag me back to the academic calendar. Never underestimate what the future holds. I could not have predicted either the amazing adventure of Professor Carol or my opportunities to work around the globe with The Smithsonian. What I feared was “lost” bloomed anew, and in abundance.
As you begin your new semester, let me congratulate you in advance. Enjoy that sense of embarking on a perfect, blank page. It won’t stay perfect, of course. But our desire to learn stems, in part, from our attraction to the perfect concept. We are divinely created with both a perfect capacity and perfect desire to learn.
If you doubt that, observe any toddler throwing himself headlong into every puzzle before him. I try to stay off the YouTube treadmill, but I admit to being caught up yesterday in a video where a toddler in diapers crawls up what looks like two metal baby-gates stacked on top of each other. Perhaps you’ve seen it. With determination and cleverness, he finds a way up, over, and out to freedom. Maybe the video was staged in order to go “viral,” but so what! It’s a good reminder that God gives us the both the gifts and strength needed to crawl over and conquer obstacles.
So, set up your obstacles, stand back, and plot your strategies. Don’t listen to someone saying “you can’t do it.” When has that ever been right? Rarely.
And may we all vault with joy to our goals!