Culture / Ordinary Life / Pluralistic World / Spirituality

Letter to My Students

Dear Students,

I’ll tell you about two key moments in my life. They came close together. I think I was seventeen. I’m not sure which event came first.

One came when I was praying in my room at home. I don’t know what I was praying about but I do know that I walked out of my room with a powerful sense of life’s brevity—a strong recognition that time is always slipping away and that if I was to accomplish anything in life, then I would need to get busy. That feeling has never left me.

The second moment came during the first day of a high school class taught by Mr. Charles Grande. The class came in a season when I was actually going to school. Periodically since the eighth grade I had attended classes when I felt like it, sometimes skipping school for multiple days. Mostly, school seemed like a waste of time, and a neighborhood I had to walk through to get there was dangerous. I stayed home and read books, though I had no one to talk about them with.

Mr. Grande was serious in a way no other teacher was. I didn’t know the Latin word gravitas at the time, but he embodied it. On the first day of class, his vocabulary was more suited for students at a selective college than for the apathetic herd facing him. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He was saying, I think we can be doing better than we’re doing.

It was obvious that he believed in his work. This wasn’t so much about the class’s subject matter as it was a clear, deep commitment to the cause of learning. Perhaps most impressive of all, he said that he wanted to learn from us, and we believed him. He made no attempt to be any student’s special friend; he didn’t bother much about being liked. But we all knew that he cared about what he was doing. For the first time, I felt that my mind might have a purpose. Before the year was up, I learned that Mr. Grande was a Christian.

The effects of these two moments converged. I was now preoccupied with the always-pressing passage of time, and Mr. Grande showed me how to channel that energy. His commitment became my commitment. The kid who sat slumped and uninvolved in the back of the class (when he went to class) was now reading Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Albert Camus and books by the Christian writer Francis Schaeffer. I didn’t understand much, but sometimes I flip through the pages of the books I read back then, and I see the notes I wrote in the margins, and I remember a kid who was, as Mr. Grande would say, “working on it.”

Most people will understand why meeting Mr. Grande was important. A kid’s potential was tapped. A teacher had not only done his job but had left a life-long mark. I go further: as I said to a waitress at a restaurant where I took Mr. Grande, then in his 80s, for lunch: This is Mr. Charles Grande. He was a teacher of mine, and he saved my life.

But the constant, powerful sense of time’s passing and life’s shortness—this is not something many would consider a gift. A culture that rehearses sayings like “it’s never too late” simply doesn’t want to acknowledge some of the precepts that western civilization’s most enduring philosophers, as well as the New Testament, have offered for consideration: that time is always running out, that a person’s life is an always diminishing resource, and that, in this life, it is constantly too late. Stupid things said can’t be unsaid; it’s too late. The voluntary degradation of the self and others can’t be undone; it’s too late. The character I have created as a result of myriad small decisions cannot be easily exchanged for another. At some point, it can’t be changed at all.

One doesn’t have to be a great sociologist to notice that American society is not shaped by a sense that time is short and that the squandering of a precious, ever-diminishing resource—one’s own life—is calamitous folly. Mr. Grande did understand this. He talked about having “only” five years left to teach, as if the end of his career was just around the corner. He ended up teaching another fifteen years, but I’m sure the time flew.

I will mention another moment. This one came about 30 years after the other two. I was at a funeral. A person rose to give a eulogy. It was clear that she wanted to say something important, something befitting the sad occasion. But, as she spoke, it became obvious that she had nothing to say. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to say something meaningful, but the library shelves of her mind and soul were empty. She cobbled together a string of clichés and catchphrases and ended with a quotation from a TV drama. The heaviness of the event was compounded by a need for depth and significance being met by the trite and ephemeral.

It isn’t that a psalm, a poem from John Donne, or an insight from Seneca, John of the Cross or Julian of Norwich, would alleviate the pain, but they might offer a sense of human solidarity. In the face of tremendous suffering, Abraham Lincoln turned to the Bible and Shakespeare’s tragedies, both of which he knew before his time of testing not only as president during the Civil War but as a father who lost children. Lincoln had a powerful sense of life’s brevity and fragility, which is why he filled his mind with good resources. These did not make life any less brief or fragile, but they did give him company, counsel, encouragement, vision and depth. That vision and depth informed his Second Inaugural Address, the most profound theological statement ever uttered by a U.S. president.

My dear students, everywhere we look people are squandering their lives. They know they are squandering their lives. They say to themselves, “I spend too much time on my phone.” They can feel their souls shriveling as they take in so much that’s cynical, degrading and dumb. They know that to improve their chances in life they should work to acquire important personal and professional skills, yet they repeatedly find themselves settling for “good enough” or less. They tell themselves: I’ll stop wasting time in the future. I’ll become a responsible person in the future. In the future, I’ll act as if this life is the only earthly one I’ll have. In the future, I’ll pay attention to important things. In the future, I’ll consider the idea that I may have to account for my life. They embrace the fiction that it’s never too late. But it was late yesterday, and it’s late today. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

Our classes have their particular focuses, and we’ll spend time on those. But something greater is at stake: our lives, our time, and what we’re doing with both.

Copyright © 2017 Preston Jones