I began teaching in the Fall of 2001. I was a 23-year-old graduate student, and with just about a week of training, I was thrown into a freshman English classroom to teach college writing to students not much younger than I was.
So I had only been teaching a couple of weeks when the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. It was difficult to keep my focus on teaching students how to write academic essays when it seemed as though the world was ending. I was confused, I was foundering, I needed some grounding and encouragement for why I should continue to do what I was doing and not simply dedicate every class period to the grave socio-political situation that felt suffocating, frightening, and hopeless at times.
As a grad student, I was taking classes as well as teaching them. And one of my professors had us read C. S. Lewis’s sermon “Learning in Wartime,” delivered in Oxford in the Fall of 1939. In this sermon, Lewis had to take up the question of why in the world the life of an elite university should continue in the face of an impending war whose horrors were still only imagined at that point.
Lewis argued in that sermon, like the Vietnam veteran and writer Tim O’Brien would years later, that war does not create a new human condition, but amplifies the human condition that is already there. Lewis says:
“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If we postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until we were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”
Life certainly was not normal in the Fall of 2001, yet I continued teaching students how to write. Perhaps I was also convinced that helping my students understand the nuances of academic argument could actually be quite important in the years to come, as we, too, seemed on the brink of a long and uncertain future.
Fast forward twenty years, and we again seem on the brink of a long and uncertain future. A year and a half into a worldwide pandemic, Delta variant cases on the rise, the accelerating pace of the climate crisis, the very real possibility of violence in a highly charged and fractious political landscape. I am again struck by Lewis’s claim that life has always been lived on the edge. Why should we continue to teach and to learn in the midst of an unstable world?
You probably have your own answer to this question, and all of our answers may slightly differ from one another, but I am guessing that they all have a common denominator: Love. We love our students, and we love our subject matter. And not only this, but we believe that shaping young people through education is one of the most important ways that we can serve our own calling as well as bring something better and brighter to the world.
Most of us see teaching as not just a job, but a calling, and so we want to invest our whole selves in it, we want to invest our lives in the lives of our students. Teaching is absolutely a noble calling, but like my other calling, the priesthood, both types of professions can lend themselves to burnout and frustration quite quickly if we let them.
What may be hidden from the wise and intelligent, Jesus implies, is a simple, yet profound, trust in God. Jesus knew that the wiser and more intelligent we think we are, the more likely we are to trust in our own efforts, in our own work, in our own plans for our lives. We are more likely to project our own fears and anxieties about our work into the future.
But into the swirling maelstrom of our concerns about our world, and our own lives, Jesus pronounces a word of peace. Jesus pronounces a word of rest. Come to me, he says, in the midst of this very imperfect world, and find perfect rest. Come to me, he says, in the midst of these heavy burdens. None of us can carry them alone.
One of my favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer is the one entitled “For Young Persons.” It speaks to the challenges and rewards of being involved in the lives of our students and their families as educators in Episcopal schools:
God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Book of Common Prayer, P. 829
May this be our prayer this year as well: to show our students that God’s way is life-giving; that God’s measure of “success” is vastly different from the way the world defines it; that “failure” is not to be avoided but is, in fact, the only way we learn and move forward; that it is possible to keep the faith even in the midst of a world that for our students in particular is often frightening and confusing; and to point them to all the ways in which we can take joy in the world around us and in God’s dearest creations, one other.
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Armond is the Curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Longview, TX, and the Chaplain and Religion Teacher at the Trinity School of Texas.