Another school year is here, though the start of classes at Wingate University is still six days away. Our preparation for the work ahead begins each year with two or three days of meetings and workshops, usually on some pedagogical topic.
But what I really like most about this annual event — other than the opportunity to greet and catch up with my colleagues — is the way it starts.
We no longer have a denominational affiliation, but Wingate’s Baptist heritage and the idea of faith as a component of a student’s education is still important. So it all begins with a devotional, drawing on Biblical sources to provide inspiration for the upcoming task.
For years one of our faculty legends, religion professor Byrns Coleman handled that duty remarkably. But since his retirement a couple of years ago, the mantle has fallen to one of his able colleagues, Edwin Bagley. And I hate to use a sports metaphor in this context, but this year he knocked it out of the park.
As a bit of background, by the end of this week, we will welcome our largest class of freshmen by far, just over 1,200 students. I’ve been around long enough — starting my 24th year — to remember when our total undergraduate enrollment didn’t reach that number.
So the story from the book of Mark which describes Jesus feeding the multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish is an especially apt metaphor. (Our food services folks may want to look into this.)
There’s the obvious analogy of our welcoming — and welcoming back — students that we hope have a hunger for knowledge. And if it doesn’t come naturally, maybe we can help instill it.
But Edwin’s perspective on this familiar story dug a little deeper.
“It’s fun to teach (the story) because of what it doesn’t say,” he said. “Many assume that magic baskets multiplied food from the bottom up. It’s not there — the details are left to creative listeners. One of my favorite takes on this is the realistic view that many people had food but they were not inclined to share until a few people set a good example. The miracle worked on this day was the miracle of creating generosity in hard hearts.”
Educators can face similar challenges, many of which have been a long time in the making.
“In our world we have many problems, very few of which were created by the current generation (of students),” Bagley said. “Every kind of bigotry and violence in this world has its roots in our ancestors’ lives. We inherited many of our shortcomings.”
Quoting a line from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” he said, “What’s relevant to us in a place like this is that whatever goes unchecked here will be ‘visited on the children to the third and fourth generation.’”
It goes without saying that higher education is taking place in an increasingly turbulent time — the most recent evidence coming from this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va. (As a matter of fact, I find myself clipping articles and taking notes for use in class every time I consume the news.)
And Edwin noted that we owe it to the students to attempt to have reasonable conversations about often emotionally-charged issues. He said that in an ethics class last year a student asked him, “Don’t you think that discrimination against white people makes it harder for us than for anyone else?”
Bagley said he told the student, “No, I don’t agree with that, but tell me what you mean and let’s talk about it.
“The discussion wasn’t great, but that young man needed someone to take his fears and his inherited views seriously enough to help him work through to a better place. A society like ours where the worst actors get the most coverage would do well to look instead to the masterful teachings of Jesus.”
As I noted above, in addition to such words of encouragement, I enjoy the opportunity this time of the year to interact with colleagues, especially ones I won’t see that often in the months ahead, even on our small campus. There’s a lot to be said for working with smart people who know and do interesting things.
I shared a table at lunch with Dr. Sylvia Little-Sweat, an English professor who taught her first class at Wingate 55 years ago, when the school was still a junior college — and I was 10 years old. Earlier this year she was named the university’s first Writer-in-Residence and is teaching fewer classes in 2017-18 so that she can work on some creative writing projects.
Sylvia, another of those campus legends, has been around Wingate for most of her life. A Union County native, she told me about coming to campus at the age of 12 to take piano lessons from the school’s music professors.
She’s working on a volume of poetry whose framework will be our school’s motto: “Faith, Knowledge, Service” or “Fides, Scientia, Pietas” if you really want to be academic about it.
We talked about the notion of faith as part of the school’s mission and Sylvia’s observation was that faith included the idea that it’s important for us to have faith in our students, a good number of whom are the first in their family to attend college, and hope that they’ll respond to that.
But the first poem in her book will be about Monday’s upcoming solar eclipse, she says. I can’t wait.
We’re going to observe the celestial rarity in style here. It’s the first day of classes and professors who are teaching in the prime viewing time between 2 and 3 p.m. are being encouraged to adjust their schedules to let the students get outside to watch.
And since we don’t want to ruin young — or older — eyes, each faculty and staff member and student has the opportunity to get a free pair of eclipse glasses. Physics professor Grant Thompson, who teaches our astronomy classes, got a grant to purchase them near the end of last school year.
It’ll be a memorable way to start the school year. If you’re a teacher at any level reading this, I hope this year eclipses any other one you’ve ever had.