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The longest academic year in living memory is finally done. Please thank any teacher you know. It has been A LOT. 

Still, there’s also that end of the semester pride in all the ways students and colleagues still managed to show up and get through. At graduation this Saturday—actually, I should say graduations since we’re doing a celebration for 2020 in the morning and for 2021 in the afternoon—I’ll be so pleased to be a joyful witness to our students’ achievement. Maybe even more than usual, given all the last years have held. 

It’s customary, of course, for professors (especially professors who are tending ever more towards extreme middle age) to give advice to their departing students. Everyone’s exhausted this year, so I’ll keep it short:

  1. You are loved—nothing you will do or be will make you more beloved by God. We all love you quite a bit, too—and we are genuinely excited to see what God will do in and through you. Noli timere. Don’t be afraid
  2. You are enough. My beloved George Eliot says it this way: “The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men.” Or as my late mother often directed: “Look around and see what needs to be done.” Usually, Platonic ideals do not accomplish much, nor do expectations that we or others need to be just so. 
  3. You are not alone. One thing I love in Dante’s Commedia is that Dante has guides all along the way, from the dark wood through Hell and Purgatory, all the way to Paradise. He never is expected to navigate on his own–he is in conversation the entire way. And in Purgatory, one of the things he learns is that he and his guide cannot travel at night: it is made for rest. These two principles—community and Sabbath—are key to Dante’s ultimate readiness for the end of his journey into the heavens. Another of my favorite writers, the poet Christina Rossetti, makes much the same point in her poem, “Up-Hill.” I leave it for a commencement gift. 

The thing about commencement is that it’s actually for all of us: for graduates to be sent into the next stage of their lives, but for the rest of us to hear again the words of encouragement that we all need, imperfect as we are.

Up-Hill

by Christina Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way? 
   Yes, to the very end. 
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? 
   From morn to night, my friend. 
 
But is there for the night a resting-place? 
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin. 
May not the darkness hide it from my face? 
   You cannot miss that inn. 
 
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night? 
   Those who have gone before. 
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight? 
   They will not keep you standing at that door. 
 
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak? 
   Of labour you shall find the sum. 
Will there be beds for me and all who seek? 
   Yea, beds for all who come.

   

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

8 Comments

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Many lessons were taught this past year. “Tall oaks from little acorns grow.” Thank you to you and all the teachers..

  • Kevin Caspersen says:

    Thank you for this post, very meaningful

  • Marla says:

    Thanks, Jennifer. This is great advice for all of us–not just for recent graduates. We are loved, we are “enough,” and we are not alone. What a great mantra for the day.

  • Jodi L MacLean says:

    Jennifer, this is a lovely gift today. Thank you for your hard work this year.

  • cathleen holbrook says:

    This exhausted teacher thanks you for these beautiful words.

  • Henry Baron says:

    And thanks for the gift of Rossetti’s poem!

  • Lois Konyndyk says:

    What beautiful and moving words of encouragement. Loved the Dante commentary, and the Rosetta poem is thoughtful gift. I did not know that one, but it fits exceptionally well.. Thank you for these quiet words of wisdom.

  • Willa Brown says:

    Thanks, Jennifer, for all your “hard” work as a teacher this year. And thanks, too, for the reminder that the words “You are loved. You are enough. You are not alone.” are for all of us. We needed to hear those words as much as the graduates.

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