I was four years old when I started kindergarten in September 1961 in a suburb of Chicago. Since the birthday cut-off date was in December, and my birthday was in November, I was one of the youngest in my class—and would remain so through college and graduate school.
Although a shy boy, I was intent on going to my first day of school unaccompanied by my mother. I crossed the street and walked past one house on my way to Edgewood Elementary School, a small four-classroom school. Other children were lined up outside in two rows, so I stood at the end of one of the rows. The children laughed at me. I was in the girl’s line. Humiliated, I switched rows.
I don’t recall the name of my first teacher; I just remember that she was young and pleasant. But she seemed determined to forget me. Each day began with a child being chosen to come up to the front of the classroom and cross off the appropriate day on the wall calendar. Every day I swung my hand wildly in the air, and every day the teacher called on someone else. Since there were about 220 school days in a year, and my class consisted of about 22 students, I should have been called on about ten times. I remember crossing off the day only twice.
Memories are hazy about that first year. On one occasion I ate an apple I was supposed to have given to the teacher. On another occasion the teacher told me to close the door to the classroom bathroom when using it. On many occasions I draped my arm over the top of my head which often led to the teacher coming around to ask me what I wanted, and me answering, “Nothing, I’m just resting my arm.”
At the end of the year mothers were invited to come to the classroom to see the progress their children had made. The teacher pointed at the “J” of the alphabet and asked me what letter it was. I said, “G.” She pointed to another letter which I also misidentified. I sensed embarrassment from my teacher and my mother.
Mrs. Funk was a humorless old hag—or so she seemed to me. I did not bloom under her tutelage. Rather, I knew without a doubt I was a stupid boy. Once or twice during the school year she shifted us to new positions in the room. I now occupied the space formerly possessed by one of the smart girls. I hoped the intelligence of that space would rub off on me, but it didn’t.
I think my first spelling test was in first grade. The teacher told us to get out a piece of paper, and then she told us to write down a word. I wrote it. She then told us a different word to write down. I erased the first word and wrote down the second word. She then told us to write down yet a different word. I erased the second word and wrote down the third word. So it went throughout the spelling test. At the end of the test I passed in a paper filled with holes from repeated erasures, and one word.
I brought home report cards featuring C’s and D’s. My parents earnestly told me, “We know you can do better!” I answered through my tears, “I can’t do better!” How could I possibly know the secret of how to be smarter?
Mrs. Chrysler’s name was easy to remember. “It’s just like the car,” she told us on the first day of class. She was a kindly lady, although she reprimanded me for three offenses that year: showing a girl the long underwear on the calf of my leg, breaking through a line of girls when they shouted, “Red rover, red rover, let Ryan come over!” and forgetting to come in after recess. I understood the last violation, but not the others.
When Mrs. Chrysler gave spelling tests, or sentence-writing tests, she would say after each word or sentence, “Now start on a new line.” I didn’t understand what she meant. All the lines on my paper were the same age. None was newer than another. So I wrote the words and sentences on the same line until they didn’t fit, and then I would skip to the next line.
Another test displayed a bird sitting on the branch of a tree. I was asked, “Is there a bird in the tree?” I said no. My answer was counted as wrong. How could I be wrong? The bird was clearly on a branch of the tree, not in the tree.
I was a little frightened about going into third grade. My older brother had been taught by Mrs. Marsky, and he warned me that she was really tough. My mother agreed, but said that was the sign of a good teacher, because I would learn a lot.
On the first day of class Mrs. Marsky told us she had a reputation for being mean—and with her old face and white hair, I believed her. She immediately corrected how we recited the pledge of allegiance: no pause in between “one nation / under God” like Mrs. Chrysler had taught us.
I read an exciting story that year about a pilot who had to parachute out of his plane during a terrible thunder storm while still many miles up in the air, and yet survived. Mrs. Marsky also read aloud to us Charlotte’s Web, a story I found riveting, funny, and poignant.
But I still felt lost much of the time. Mrs. Marsky would sometimes refer to the previous day’s lesson, but I would have no idea what she was talking about. I often thought to myself, “I must have been absent yesterday,” except that I hadn’t been. I could not understand how everyone else knew what she was talking about and I didn’t.
Nevertheless, my grades got better; my report card sometimes featured B’s. At the beginning of the year and at the end of the year we took a standardized test. My test revealed that I had started the year at a first-grade level and had finished the year at a mid-year third-grade level. Without mentioning my name to the class, Mrs. Marsky announced she was most proud of the student who had made the most progress.
I now had to walk three-quarters of a mile to Westmore Elementary School. Since there was no cafeteria, and everyone had a mother at home, we all walked home at noon for lunch and then returned an hour or so later, just as we had done at Edgewood School.
I don’t remember my teacher’s name when I began the year, but by the end of the year she had gotten married and was now Mrs. Rooney. This was her first year as a teacher and she brought joy to the classroom. She also, surprisingly, treated me with delight. I sensed I was her favorite pupil, and I wanted to impress her.
I had started reading books back in second or third grade and loved them. In fourth grade the books became more interesting. I read about John Paul Jones and gave a spirited report to my classmates about his famous exploits during the Revolutionary War aboard the ship Bonhomme Richard. One day I was reading an abridged version of Robinson Crusoe. When it was time to go out for recess, I asked the teacher if I could stay in and continue reading. She was surprised by my request and reluctantly agreed. I sat alone in the classroom reading. I felt special.
One day the teacher asked us, “What is a rainbow?” My hand shot in the air and Mrs. Rooney called on me. “It’s God’s promise never to flood the earth again.” The class became unusually quiet. The teacher said nothing to me but picked someone else to answer. He said something about light being refracted. The teacher said that was correct. I didn’t understand what had just happened. I knew my answer was right—I had learned it in Sunday school.
Fourth grade was when all the kids had to pick a musical instrument to learn. When I heard the sounds a violin could make, I knew that was my instrument. Once a week I received instruction at the school. I told everyone I was going to become the world’s greatest violinist. In reality, I practiced half-heartedly and did well only for a couple of years.
I came home one day with my report card and excitedly showed my parents: I had three A’s, four B’s, and seven “pluses” for various accomplishments or good conduct.
Mr. Crawford was short, overweight, and constantly licking scum off his lips, but I thoroughly enjoyed him. He did not call us children; he addressed the class by saying, “People.” How grown up I immediately felt! I was no longer a child but a person! On the first day of class he took out his grade book and showed it to us: “You are all A students. See, I have given all of you an A for today. Now keep it up!”
The first story we read from our textbook was about two boys—one white and one black—who become friends and play together and stare at the clouds and see Spanish galleons. But it was also a sad story because one of the boys then moves away. Mr. Crawford asked the class if we liked the story. I did. But then he announced he didn’t like it because there wasn’t enough action. I was shocked. No teachers had ever said they didn’t like something we were being taught! It was an invitation for us to think for ourselves.
On my first report card, he gave me a C for penmanship. I was insulted. I had always received A’s for my penmanship in fourth grade. Mr. Crawford said we could appeal our grades by writing him a note and putting it on his desk. But there was no time to write him a note during class; I had to do it during recess. So I took a piece of paper and a pencil outside but could find no flat surfaces to write on. I ended up writing the note with the paper wrapped around a pole. It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t making a very good case for raising my penmanship grade by writing an illegible note.
One day in class I made the statement that Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean. Mr. Crawford said I was wrong. I said I was right. He told me to do research on it and bring him information the next day proving my position. I forgot to do so, but the next day he came to class with a sheet of paper typed up with information he had gathered and he gave it to me. I was impressed.
In fifth grade I learned there were wars and conflicts going on in the world. Mr. Crawford told us about Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle for equal rights. For the first time, I felt anxiety about life; my safe and comfortable world was not as secure and perfect as I thought it was.
On May 6th, riding my bike home from school, I was hit by a car and broke my left femur. I was placed in the hospital and missed the last five weeks of school. At first I was told I might need to be tutored over the summer. But the principal looked at my grades, consulted with the teacher, and decided I was doing well enough to proceed into sixth grade.
This was Mrs. Chersenowski’s first year as a teacher, but unlike Mrs. Rooney, she didn’t bring any joy to the classroom. It was quite clear to us boys that she didn’t like any of us. On one occasion, during class, she verbally evaluated us, saying what was wrong with each boy.
One day, as we were studying the Civil War, she asked us, “What do you think the former slaves did at the end of the war?” I answered, “They left the plantations because they were free.” She told me I was wrong. “No, they stayed on the plantations because they had been well fed and sheltered by their masters.” That didn’t sound right to me.
Sixth grade avoided being a complete waste through an experiment implemented by the three sixth grade teachers. Each teacher had a favorite subject, so we rotated rooms so that they could teach that favorite subject to each of the three sixth grade classes. Unfortunately, the teacher who taught English was worse than Mrs. Chersenowski. She had no control over her class; we chattered constantly. She spoke softly, perhaps hoping we would become quiet in order to hear her, but it didn’t work.
On the other hand, the teacher who taught history was wonderful. He introduced the idea of signing a contract for a grade. If you wanted a C, you signed a contract to complete a minimal amount of work on your project. If you signed a B contract, you agreed to do a bit more work. If you signed an A contract, you were agreeing to doing even more work. He urged us to select a contract one grade higher than what we would normally choose, so I chose the A contract. I wrote a report on Denmark and handed it in. When I got it back, he had written, “This is an excellent A report!” Later in the year I did an oral report on the Vikings which also received his praise.
One day in his class, we were divided into small groups to work on a project. In my group, I raised a cluster of questions, such as, “How do we know whether there are UFOs or not?” and “How do we know that gravity is what holds things down?” The teacher overheard my questions, called for the attention of the class, and told them I was raising an important issue about how we know what we know.
This year I transitioned to Jackson Junior High School—a much bigger school with no recess, and multiple classes and teachers. For the first time I encountered bullies, and they made my life miserable every day. I would have been happy to go to school except for the students.
Regarding teachers and learning, my Biology teacher stood out. A middle-aged single woman, she was quirky and in love with nature. Through her I was infected with enthusiasm for natural history and ecology. On the first Earth Day, I carried a sign from class to class protesting air pollution.
On the other end of the spectrum was my Industrial Arts teacher who enjoyed humiliating me. He punished students by forcing us to kneel on a three-sided ruler. He objected to the length of my hair and one day taped it up in a knot on top of my head. He once asked me in front of the class, “What does your father do for a living?” He seemed to be wondering why I was so incompetent. A kid shouted, “Garbage collector!” I said, “Truck driver.” The kid said, “I was close!” and everyone laughed.
For my foreign language I chose Latin because I was in love with ancient Roman history. For two years I received steady D’s.
I read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, my first full-length novel. The book left me stunned, as if I had lived through something profound. I began reading other Verne novels.
On St. Patrick’s Day I entered one of my classes. The teacher was not there. As usual, several boys surrounded me and started kicking me. For the first time, I decided to fight back. I grabbed one of the kids by the collar and raised my fist. The boy was terrified and pounded my jaws repeatedly. I looked at the fear in his eyes and couldn’t hit him. Still holding him by the collar, fist cocked back, not knowing what I should do, he grabbed a pencil and stabbed me above my lip. Blood poured out. The fight ended. I was taken to the school nurse. She called my mother so I could be transported to a doctor for stitches. Before leaving her office she told me to sign a statement that I had been injured by accident due to a collision in the hallway. I was shocked that a school official was telling me to lie.
I was never bothered by bullies again.
In English class I read my first Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.” Captivated, I began reading every Sherlock Holmes story and novel. My English teacher also introduced us to H.G. Wells by having us read The Time Machine. It was the most fascinating and exciting book I had ever read. I quickly dived into three more Wells novels. We also read short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Pierce, and Jack London. One intriguing story depicted the ghosts of Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Pierce fading away through the burning of their stories, and another story described a man who does not completely die until the last remaining trace of his life is extinguished. I was filled with wonder as stories explored strange ideas.
High School Freshman
Ever since fourth or fifth grade I had been looking forward to attending Willowbrook High School. My sister, who attended the school seven years ahead of me, spoke enthusiastically about her teachers and what she was learning. Her friends, who were among the top students at the school, had parties at our house that featured amazing displays of creativity and wit and fun. I could hardly wait to be a part of this cool, intellectual environment.
Freshman year turned out not to be very noteworthy. I switched from Latin to German, which I enjoyed for the first year but struggled through for an additional two years. I read an abridged Odyssey in English class, and some interesting stories such as “The Lottery” and “The Lady, or the Tiger?”
One month into the school year, I broke my left femur again. After coming home from the hospital, the high school sent teachers to my home to tutor me until I could return to school. I thrived under this one-on-one attention, but when I got back to school, my grades began to fall off.
But I did excel in one class, Algebra, which was ironic since I had always struggled with math, and my mother had tried to talk me out of taking it. But I knew that almost all colleges required high school Algebra and Geometry, so I went ahead and signed up for Algebra. Two things were remarkable about the class: it was incredibly simple, and I was the only boy in the class. Algebra turned out to be nothing more than elementary logic. I couldn’t understand how anyone could get an incorrect answer. I sailed through with straight A’s, a totally new experience for me. Despite the ease of the subject, I did not like it. Numbers are boring.
High School Sophomore
Sophomore year was the beginning of my love for school. My first great class was Eastern Civilization. This was a subject I was passionate about because the first semester covered ancient Egypt, Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia—civilizations I had been reading about with enthusiasm. On one of the first days of class, we were placed into groups of four and given a copy of an ancient artifact. We were to analyze the artifact and try to determine its origin and purpose. Our group’s artifact was a Babylonian libation cup. I correctly identified its provenance, approximate date, the meaning of some of the symbols, and its purpose. The teacher, Mr. Thompson, was quite impressed. We also took a trip to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, my favorite museum along with the Field Museum of Natural History.
Our most creative learning activity was called “The Big Dig.” The class was divided into two. Each group had to create its own civilization—complete with its own history, customs, religion, economy, etc. Then we had to fashion artifacts that would reveal these aspects of our fictional civilization, and then bury them in the ground in locations and levels that would reveal aspects of our civilization’s history. A few days later the two groups dug up each other’s civilizations, using proper archeological excavation techniques, and analyzed the artifacts to determine as much as we could about the other civilization. What could be more exciting?
Because of my enthusiasm for the subject, and my previous readings that had given me a head start, I, along with one other boy, were considered by the teacher and our classmates as the brightest in the class. I had never been viewed this way before. After returning from the Oriental Institute, Mr. Thompson asked if we had noticed what was written on the back side of a massive Assyrian statue. I immediately said, “Made in Japan.” The class laughed. They thought I was funny—another first.
I took a one-semester Speech class taught by a prissy, precise little man. My first speech was about the ancient Greek Battle of Thermopylae Pass. The teacher told me I was boring and sounded like a know-it-all, and he gave me a C. After that I decided to be more exciting. I acted out the parts of three characters from the comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” and recited “The Charge of the Light Brigade” while jumping and slashing with an invisible saber. My grade for the semester was an A.
On the other hand, my Biology teacher was quite boring, snuffing out all interest in the subject which my seventh-grade biology teacher had ignited in me. He thought I was bright (which surprised me because he never gave me an A), and more honest than I actually was. During one test, he had left the room. A student went up to his desk, found the answer sheet to the test, and shouted out the right answers to various questions. When the teacher returned to the classroom, he found out what had happened, but cheerfully announced to the class that the “answer sheet” was actually fictitious. The next day he pulled me aside and congratulated me on being the only student in the class who had not cheated. I smiled and said nothing. Inside I felt guilty and confused because I had cheated also.
My grades were high enough my sophomore year that for the first time I was listed on the Dean’s Honor Roll. I remained on it for the rest of high school.
High School Junior
Even better than Eastern Civilization was Western Civilization taught by Mr. MacLear. For our first lesson, the teacher gave us various contradictory newspaper accounts of the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that sparked the First World War. He asked us to analyze the differing accounts to determine what most likely happened. I loved it: history, mystery, and rational analysis. I soon realized that we were not learning history in the traditional way—memorizing events in their proper order. Instead we were learning the central legacy of Western civilization: critical thinking. Mr. MacLear had us apply critical thinking to one historical question after another. He also took us through the Socratic dialogues, and we pondered the meaning of “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We imagined the parable of the cave and its philosophical implications. It was all heady stuff for me. Some students thought Mr. MacLear was dry and dull. I thought he was the most brilliant teacher of them all.
Since I had an open spot in my schedule, I asked Mr. Thompson if I could assist his Eastern Civilization class as they prepared for “The Big Dig.” He smiled and said, “Pennies from heaven!” I worked with one half of the class, helping them develop their fictitious civilization. In my enthusiasm I did most of the imagining for them.
High School Senior
I so enjoyed Western Civilization I wanted to take it again, so I signed up to be Mr. MacLear’s teaching assistant. In addition to hearing the class content again, Mr. MacLear invited me to give a few lectures. I also tutored a girl who came to the class mid-year. But what excited me most was doing my own in-depth historical investigation: was there a historical King Arthur? Mr. MacLear arranged for me to have access to the Elmhust College Library where I could find first-rate histories as well as quotations from primary sources. I wrote a lengthy research paper analyzing whether there was a historical Arthur, when he most likely lived, and what he most likely did. I presented a verbal report to the class. Mr. MacLear said I should take my paper with me to college.
Another exciting class was Peace and War taught by Mr. Radditz. With the tragic Vietnam War recently behind us, the class studied American foreign policy, the causes of war, how violence escalates, and how to prevent war. The course combined my fascination with war and the pacifist ideals I had been taught in my church. Mr. Radditz loved my papers (“There’s a lot of meat in here!”) and asked if he could keep one of them for his files. The culmination of the course, involving two classes, was a one-day mock UN General Assembly. I represented Israel. In the following semester, I, along with four other students, represented our school in a massive multi-day Model UN event in Wisconsin. We were the delegation from West Germany.
The most popular course at Willowbrook was Cinema Study. We watched films every day, learning how they were made and how to interpret them. I already loved movies, and this class widened and deepened my appreciation. Our final project was to make our own movies which we then showed to the class during the last weeks of the year.
I also enrolled in Creative Writing. We had one book to read but no assignments. We were free to write whatever and whenever we wanted. The entire class time consisted of us reading to each other what we had created, and critiquing each other. I usually wrote short stories exploring faith. The teacher referred to me playfully as “the Voice of God.”
Surprisingly for a public school, Willowbrook also offered a one-semester course in Old Testament and another in New Testament. I couldn’t fit Old Testament into my first semester schedule, but I took the New Testament course in my second semester. The class was not faith-based. Rather, we studied the New Testament from a historical and literary perspective. We also studied a variety of denominations as well as some other religions such as Baha’i and Hare Krishna--attending their temples. My own project was to do a report on Christian Science.
Because it would be required for college, I finally took Geometry—a class normally taken in one’s sophomore year. It was harder than Algebra, but I still managed to get straight A’s. As with Algebra, I forgot it as soon as I left the classroom. To this day, when I have a recurring nightmare that I have missed a class all semester, I’m late for the final exam, and I can’t find the room, it’s always Geometry.
In addition to the official school newspaper, some students distributed an underground newspaper, “The Daily Drudge.” It was filled with edgy and irreverent articles. Some friends and I decided to publish a Christian newspaper, “Insight.” We put out an issue every month, passing it out in the hallways between classes. We started with a few hundred copies and slowly increased our circulation to about 1500. The principal called me into his office one day and said, “I think it’s great.”
During one semester of my senior year my report card had straight A’s, the first time I had ever achieved that. Students called me “The Bomar Brain,” the name of a new calculator. Interestingly, every one of my high school teachers was a man, and I wondered if that had anything to do with my success. Mr. Thompson wrote in my senior yearbook, “Of all the students I know, I suspect you have the combination of intelligence, drive, and conviction that will take you the furthest.”
I was not, however, among the academic elite. Although my grades put me in the top ten percent of my class, standardized test scores placed me below the top quartile.
Before going off to college, I went back to visit some of my elementary teachers—to say thanks and to show them I was doing well. I found Mrs. Chrysler and Mr. Crawford at Westmore. Mr. Crawford remembered me immediately and was very pleased to see me. I found Mrs. Rooney at Jackson Junior High. To my surprise and disappointment, she had no memory of me.
I imagined college would be a place of the highest intellectual pursuits. In that regard, my first year at Goshen College disappointed me. The professor for my film class knew less about moviemaking than my high school teachers, the psychology professor inspired us to mediocrity, and I corrected my Bible professor when he miswrote on the blackboard the Hebrew name for God. Nevertheless, that Bible professor, and the readings he assigned, challenged some of my fundamental assumptions about the Bible and presented me with unnerving facts. I went to his office one afternoon and had a lengthy debate with him. He won.
One of my professors during my first semester told me, “There’s no magic in getting an A.” That surprised me, because I thought there was. Sometimes in high school and college I would get a D on a test or a paper and have no idea why I had gotten such a grade. Whether I ended up with a B or an A for a course seemed arbitrary to me—a complete mystery.
Two courses stood out for me my freshman year. One was Creative Expression. I had to do some reading on creativity and then produce a creative project. I made a movie about the college which was shown (once) to alumni. The other course was Science: Elegance and Discovery. I was not looking forward to this required course but was pleasantly surprised when I realized it was about the philosophy of science.
By the time I got to my fourth year of college, I had figured out that each required course was laying the philosophical groundwork for an integration of the humanities, sciences, and religion. It was a remarkable plan, perhaps inspired by the college president who was a former professor of philosophy and theology at Harvard.
During the first days of my freshman year, the editor of the school paper asked me to join his staff of writers. My first assignment was to write a review for a movie that was going to be shown on campus. The day the paper came out, the faculty advisor, J. Daniel Hess, met with us to critique the first issue. He was merciless as he picked apart one article after another. Finally, he came to my movie review. He asked with menace in his voice, “Who is Ryan Ahlgrim?” I hesitantly raised my hand. “Well it looks like we finally have a writer among us.”
Goshen College was best known for its international education program. Nearly all students spent a semester overseas, usually in a less developed country, living with host families, spending the first half of the semester learning about the culture and the second half doing a service project. I chose to go to Honduras because it was the poorest country in Latin America. I took three semesters of Spanish before going, but it hardly mattered since I usually could not understand what my host family was telling me. Nevertheless, that semester plunged me into an eye-opening world of slums and powerlessness. I got a small sense of what it must be like to grow up in a country that has no geopolitical importance or influence. The semester achieved its educational goal: I saw the world from a fundamentally different perspective. I have been wrestling with how to solve poverty ever since.
Amazingly, my service project was an archeological dig. I and two other students joined an archeologist who was digging up a Mayan-related seasonal worship center. We uncovered a small platform temple built over the body of a beheaded skeleton. We also found the remains of several huts, lines of stones, and tens of thousands of potsherds. We found so many potsherds—all of which had to be properly recorded—that after a while I hoped I would not find anything. An additional challenge was that the site was infested with fire ants. Every time we stuck a shovel in the ground, thousands of little red ants swarmed up our shovels and on to our arms and legs and started biting. My romantic notions of becoming an archeologist melted under the sun.
On some days we did emergency archeology: following bulldozers as they flattened ancient mounds to create sugarcane fields. We bagged and recorded whatever we could, as fast as we could. The archeologist said, “Lets face it: archeology doesn’t put a bean on anyone’s plate.” I often wondered about how to justify the pursuit of history or art when people are starving.
Since the college’s history courses were mostly about American history, and I was uninterested in American history, I was planning to choose instead Bible & Religion as my major. My pastors advised me not to, suggesting that I would be able to take all of those courses in seminary (where they were sure I was headed). Instead, they thought I should broaden my education while in college. I looked at the requirements for each major and came to the conclusion that an English major would allow me to take the maximum number of courses that I was interested in. So I became an English major.
My first English course was British Literature: Beowulf to 1800, taught by Ervin Beck. (I ended up having Ervin as my professor for six courses.) On my first test I received a D, which surprised me because I was already familiar with Beowulf and some other medieval literature. But the test revealed to me what kind of information Ervin wanted us to know, and after that all of my tests were an A.
Years later Ervin told me that he had been worried about me because I never took notes during his lectures, but he accepted it when I got A’s in his courses. I had never learned to take notes. I relied on careful listening and reading all of the books. When I tried taking notes on a couple of occasions, I found it distracting.
Another course I had with Ervin that year was English Language Problems. Just the name made me dread the course. I thought it was going to be about the finer points of grammar and diagraming sentences. Instead, to my delight, it was about the nature of language and trying to solve some of its biggest mysteries.
One of the most fun courses that year was Science Fiction. I loved the genre, and for a creative project I made a humorous science fiction film.
For a class in Anabaptist theology I did an analysis of twenty-one episodes of “Star Trek,” comparing its humanist philosophy to Anabaptism. The professor loved the idea and lent me his “Star Trek” encyclopedia. I titled the paper, “Cosmic Anabaptists.”
But the best course of all was about the historical Jesus, taught by Dennis MacDonald, recently arrived from Harvard with a newly minted PhD. Creative, hip, and provocative, he was frequently trailed by a group of admiring students. Half the time we didn’t understand what he was saying, but when we did, he blew us away (or frightened us). More than once he warned us that we would have to move around our theological furniture. Dennis completely changed my understanding of Jesus and introduced me to the unsolvable puzzle of the relationship between faith and history.
During this year, for one semester, I received A’s in all my courses—the only time that happened in college.
During my junior year I had enrolled in History Seminar, a required course for history majors, but one which the professor allowed me to take. The course involved choosing a historical question, doing detailed research in primary sources, and writing a major paper. Students had until the end of their senior year to complete the paper. I chose to research the history of three rules at Goshen College: the prohibition of attending movies, closing hours of the dorms, and required chapel attendance. Each rule had changed drastically over time; I wanted to know how they had been enforced, what rationale had been used to justify them, and why they had changed. It was a fascinating odyssey into the ethos of the college over the course of some six decades.
A thoroughly enjoyable course was Descriptive Astronomy. I was filled with wonder by the immensity of the universe and the mysteries of relativity and quantum physics.
Another enjoyable course was Short Story Writing. I wrote the first draft of “Blue-Eyed Jesus and the Time Machine,” a short story I am still tinkering with and trying to get right these many years later.
Begun during the summer before my junior year, I submitted a science fiction novella for publication by the college press in fulfillment of my English Practicum project. Ervin Beck wanted to see substantial changes before considering it, so I re-wrote it during my junior year. The Pinch Penny Press board accepted the manuscript, and during my senior year I had to re-write it again and format it for publication. Roth-23 sold out its first printing before the end of my senior year, so it went into a second printing which also sold out.
Once again I had a class with Dennis MacDonald, this time on the Apostle Paul; and once again he shattered everything I had previously learned.
But the most mind-bending course of them all was Issues in Science and Religion, team taught by a professor of philosophy and a professor of physics. Nothing was more exciting than exploring facets of reality, and nothing was more important to me than finding some sort of integration of religious and scientific truths.
One of the last classes I took in college was Archery. Each time I pulled back the bow string, pointed the arrow, controlled my breathing, and waited for the moment of perfect alignment, I experienced an intense focus and calm, a kind of transcendence.
First Year Seminary
Following a year of employment as a youth minister, I enrolled at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). I was disappointed in three of my professors who were beloved and respected by previous generations of students; I thought they were woefully out of date. Initially, the seminary struck me as an insulated echo chamber mostly uninterested and unable to integrate knowledge across disciplines. I learned more biblical-critical skills and knowledge in college than I did in seminary.
On the other hand, two professors in that first year stunned me with their insights.
Millard Lind, who taught Pentateuch in the first semester and Hebrew Language in the next (and other courses later), was an adorable old man. He was dry, and it took forever for him to build to his point, but when he finally got there, it was astonishing. The complexity and depth of meaning he revealed in the first five books of the Bible awed me. His approach to teaching Hebrew was inductive: on the first day of class we opened our Hebrew Bibles to Genesis 1:1, and Millard immediately began teaching us how to translate. We learned vocabulary and grammar as we stumbled along through the opening chapter of Genesis—and then on to the Book of Ruth, the Book of Jonah, the Ten Commandments, and more. I had never learned a language that way before—just jump in and translate—and I loved it.
David Augsburger, who taught Personality and Religious Experience (and later, Marital and Family Therapy), was the most riveting and effective lecturer I have ever experienced. With his resonate bass voice and rich vocabulary, he was an unsurpassed storyteller. He used an overhead projector the way some professors use PowerPoint today: a constant flow of cartoons and visual illustrations that helped clarify the most profound insights into human nature. He not only taught me what made me tick, he helped make me whole.
Middler Year Seminary
Leroy Friesen, who taught Theological Ethics, used the book Watership Down to help us understand how stories form our identities, character, and community. He used the pronouns “he” and “she” interchangeably for God, which at first struck me as odd, but eventually sounded natural. When asked a question, he never responded immediately, but always thought a while and then gave a carefully considered answer.
Willard Swartley taught the Gospel of Mark. I came to the first few days of class armed with scholarly commentaries to challenge his conservative views on Mark’s authorship, but he sidestepped that question entirely, focusing instead on the subtle structure of the Gospel and its meaning. Mesmerized, I couldn’t get enough of studying this intriguing gospel.
Sermon of the Mount, a Greek exegesis class, was taught by the campus mystic, Clarence Bauman. On one of the first days, he told us an obscure Hasidic parable, the point of which escaped me. Periodically through the semester he repeated the parable. Finally, I understood it, and sat amazed. One day he came to class, say down, and said nothing—which was not a problem since a student was giving an oral presentation. After a half hour, he looked around at us and said, “I now recognize who you are. An hour ago my spirit left my body and has been traveling in the heavens. But now I am back.”
Human Nature and Destiny, team-taught by Augsburger and seminary president Marlin Miller, sounded like it would be cool, but turned out to be a bore—except for one evening when an exorcist was brought to class who played an audio tape of one of his exorcisms. During a break, my classmates and I huddled in the dark courtyard, jittery about demons hiding in the bushes. But when we reconvened, David gave a trenchant psychological explanation for everything we had heard, and I sighed with relief.
The most famous Mennonite scholar in history, and one of the most important theologians of the second half of the twentieth century, was John Howard Yoder, who taught Christology and Theological Method. He was socially awkward, aloof, and impatient—and dismissive of my liberal theology. He was also the most incisive and logically rigorous thinker I have ever met, and was a sharp expositor of New Testament theology. I refused to be intimidated by him, so I argued with him frequently.
At the beginning of my second year I was hired by a local United Methodist Church as a part-time assistant to the senior minister—a role I relished until I graduated. Although I never received seminary supervision or credit for this work, it was a surprising and exciting seminary education all in itself.
Third Year Seminary
I spent the Fall semester as an exchange student at Princeton Theological Seminary. The students were so much more lively, creative, and fun than most of the ones I knew at AMBS. The professors were solid, and the attractions and advantages of the seminary, university, and town were intoxicating. It was the most delightful semester of my life. I took a full load of courses and sat in on several other classes so I could glean as much as possible. Most memorably, Charles West’s Political Philosophy course challenged and sharpened my Anabaptist political philosophy.
I came back to AMBS for my last semester and enjoyed an insightful course in Hermeneutics taught by Willard. He commented that my final essay took an unusual hermeneutical position—for an AMBS student.
I chose John Howard Yoder to be one of my oral examiners for approving me for graduation (no one else would sign up with him). The exam went well. Later that day I received a note in the campus mail from Yoder. He said he would like to discuss further with me an interesting point that I had brought up in my oral exam. I was thrilled and showed the note to everyone. “Look, he thinks I had an interesting point!” I wanted to frame the note. Three days later I went to his office and asked him what it was he wanted to discuss with me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he responded. I walked away, not sure if he genuinely couldn’t remember or if he was being a butthead.
During the summer I completed a Basic Unit of Clinical Pastoral Education as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The director of the program, analyzing a personality test I had taken, informed me, “You overestimate your abilities.” If by that he meant I was a pompous ass, he was right.
At the end of the summer I received a Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in pastoral counseling.
Before beginning my first pastorate, I decided to return to Willowbrook High School and look up my favorite teachers. Sadly, Mr. Radditz no longer taught there, Mr. Thompson didn’t remember me, and Mr. MacLear—the best of them all—had died.
First Summer D.Min. Program
Ten years later I began a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching program run by the Association of Chicago Theological Schools, a combination of five seminaries; I was enrolled through McCormick Theological Seminary. Located in Hyde Park, next to the University of Chicago, the streets pulsated with energy.
My most amazing class was with Lee Roloff, a Jungian psychotherapist who was talked into teaching a course by the director of the program. He took us on an excursion into the archetypes of our collective unconscious. On the first morning, while a dozen of us sat in a circle of chairs, Roloff began chatting in a meandering way. A half hour later, as I was wondering when the lecture was going to begin, I realized this was the lecture. He spoke in an unstructured, almost stream of consciousness way, at one point blurting out a lament of an Inuit woman. Our first assignment was to come back the next day with whatever dream had imprinted itself the most deeply in our minds and present it to the class in whatever fashion we wanted to—lying on the floor, dancing, or sitting. The next day we each shared our most memorable dream, and Roloff then interpreted the symbols in our dreams and told us what they revealed about each of us. He was unnervingly spot-on, almost psychic.
Through the course he helped us get in touch with our playful, transgressive internal Hermes, then combine that with our orderly internal Apollo, so as to create an imagistic sermon that would speak to the soul. On the last day of class he told me he would always remember the look of fright on my face whenever he asked me to respond intuitively rather than rationally.
During this summer I also heard a lot of “left-handed” preaching: sermons consisting entirely of a story—not the sentimental stories used as illustrations in soft and fuzzy sermons, but surprising stories that upend the status quo and tear open up a pocket of heaven.
My project for the first year was to preach a series of sermons combining Jewish fairy tales and scripture in ways that would engage the imagination and leave interpretation in the hands of the congregation.
Second Summer D.Min. Program
Jana Childers taught a course called Preaching as Theater and Theology. We each had to bring to class a videotape of one of our better sermons. She played these for the class, and then commented on each. One of the first sermons shown struck me as particularly bad, and I wondered what she would say. When the video was finished, she paused and then asked the fellow who preached it, “Why did you move your hand like this?” She completely ignored the verbal content of the sermon and focused on his small hand movements. She guided him—and all of us—to use economy of movement, making each gesture meaningful, or not to gesture at all.
In addition to teaching us the lessons of theater in preaching, she also insisted that our sermons contain gravitas—that they be substantial and weighty theologically. Her favorite quote was from Amos Wilder who said that going to church “should be like approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks. The sanctuary is like the chamber next to the atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside.”
My project for the second year was to preach a series of sermons in which I would try to preach the way Jesus preached—using parables and beatitudes and aphorisms of my own making for revealing the kingdom of God.
Third Summer D.Min. Program
Once again I took a course with Roloff. Now he sported a large, white mustache, looking the part of a Jungian analyst. I don’t remember any content, but I became a bit more comfortable exercising my intuition.
For the final year of the program I wrote my thesis: how to create parables that function in ways similar to Jesus’ parables. Thanks to my undergraduate English degree, the seminary’s editor told me it was the best-written thesis that year.
One More Class
Sixteen years later I took a two-week class at AMBS on spiritual healing taught by Tilda Norberg. Tilda founded a therapeutic approach that combines Gestalt therapy with Christian imagination for spiritual healing. At the end of the first day, our assignment was to make a list of the lies we believe about ourselves—lies told to us by others or by ourselves. On the second day, she showed us how to be freed from those lies. She created an atmosphere in the classroom that was so spiritually focused that any extraneous conversation with classmates, even before class started, felt like a violation of holy space. Walking into the classroom was like walking into a prayer. I had never experienced anything like it. Over the course of two weeks I observed how listening to our bodies and responding with imaginative rituals could bring about resolution and relief. It inspired me to focus my ministry on being a healer. But subsequently I learned I’m not Tilda Norberg.
As I consider the journey of my classroom education, I am struck by how extraordinary it was, even though most of the schools were fairly ordinary. I did not start out as a promising student. I was lost, slowly bloomed, became cocky, and eventually recognized some of my limitations. Most wonderful to me, I learned critical reasoning, creativity, unconventional views, and intuition. To my teachers who embodied these treasures, I bow in awe and gratitude.