One of my first memories of teaching at Westmont is leaving the house one night to meet some students, with my son literally clinging to my leg, tears streaming down his cheeks. I recall dreaming sociologically, wondering if we could somehow fashion life so that we didn’t have to “go off” from family to follow our calling.
Thankfully, it turns out that in teaching, one of the serendipitous solutions to the dilemma of “going off,” is the opportunity for mutual “drawing near”: commerce between hearts opens the portals of home. Indeed, not long after our tearful scene, my little boy left the house himself to spend the night in the dorm with a student he’d taken a shine to. And it flows both ways. We have been graced with students at our family table hundreds of times, and a number have lived with us from days to years. Our family bears the deep imprint of their generous participation: first words, first rope swings, first overalls, first weddings, special friendships for each of our children, and even toddler nicknames that have endured to this day reflect the legacy of students in our lives. While it is common and probably sound advice not to let work intrude into family, time with Westmont students has not only enriched our family, but it feels like it has actually enlarged it. Cliché though it sounds, the pictures on our refrigerator bear testimony to the enduring relationships sparked in the classroom and cast in the warmth of mealtime conversation. Now it is we who delight in their kids.
Of course a little boy’s first visit to a college dorm is but foreshadowing, and any parent with a child at Westmont will recognize the ironic symmetry of role reversal in who leaves and who cries. Although I couldn’t cling to his leg, flying back from taking my son to Gordon College last fall, my cheeks were the ones that tears rolled down. I began dreaming sociologically, wondering about a time and place where we wouldn’t have to go off from family to seek our call. Yes, I was immensely grateful for the years at home and hopeful for the growth to come, but, to be honest, they did not fully console the mournful ache of something missing. Somehow, what has ended up being encouraging is the thought, the hope, that perhaps he will find himself a regular at the dinner table of a faculty home 3,000 miles away, maybe even adorning their refrigerator someday. Finding a place in the affections and esteem of a family, just as beloved student friends have secured that place in ours.
I wondered if sending a child off to college would end up changing how I view students in the classroom. What it initially seemed to change is how I view parents at parents day. Then we hit graduation. At May Com-mencement, seeing a number of students I’d grown particularly fond of leave Westmont, tears again rolled down my cheeks. I began to dream sociologically…. No kidding. As I wondered about whether it was possible to live in a way where we were not always saying goodbye in order to pursue the next stage in life, it hit me that this mixture of gratitude and grief, so inescapable at Commencement, was almost indistinguishable from what I’d felt last fall. Familial nostalgia. Yet unlike the domestic scene, the very choreography of Commencement, and the nature of pedagogy itself, requires that the development of students and not attachments of teachers is the appropriate focus of attention. That leaves us, though, with the lingering need to say thank you, to students for coming, to parents for sending. Milton says gratitude is the one debt which, the more we pay, the more we owe. The complement is also true: the more we owe, the richer we are.