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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Maria Johnson on Friendship with Students 
8th-Jul-2010 04:01 pm
Posse/Teaching
Still sweltering. Just ran a bunch of used books to the Boswell Book Company, mostly pulp fiction, with the help of Uncle Bill, and cleared out some space that way. I then mentioned that I was having a sort of farewell dinner tomorrow with my friend Meg, who I met when she was a high school senior thinking of coming to Marquette, who I then became real friends with during her Marquette years, and with whom I've remained friends, though of the more "occasional dinner and catch-up" variety. I was telling a funny story of that friendship to my uncle and recalled having recently read this column by another newish friend, Maria, who taught Dan and Amy at the University of Scranton during their undergraduates.

I was particularly pleased with this article because Maria describes much of what I've learned about friendships with students from my time at Saint Joseph's High School and then at Marquette. She especially manages to describe the real crux of what is unique in that dynamic, which she usefully describes as its "asymmetry." I had started teaching with a strong resolution to keep students at arm's length, with a sort of rigid professionalism that I figured was the best guard against any kind of misunderstand or appearance of misunderstanding, which is perhaps especially important as a bachelor. The students taught me otherwise, especially as someone in the role of a theology teacher. I still had to make adaptations for my own status, so my home was not a meeting place for students, like the Johnsons' could be, as shown in this article, and I was more available to students in my classroom for a few hours after school, or in local coffeeshops, in the student newspaper or in Thursday night Philosophy Club meetings. There's something essential in the sort of "ministry of availability" that Maria describes in this article, and I'm pleased that she sketched it so well.

Maria Poggi Johnson: Late Nights at the Professor's House
06:42 PM CST on Friday, February 26, 2010 in The Dallas Morning News

Leaving an event at the university the other night, my husband and I stopped to talk with Robby, whom we met when he was a freshman in one of my classes. (All the names in this essay have been changed.) He told us he was on his way to a hot-tub party with some girls from his old high school. An hour later he materialized in our living room – people rarely knock – with his guitar and a dazed expression."Hey, you, what brings you here? Weren't you going to a party?"

"Well, I knew it would be a really bad idea, so here I am, and I think I must be out of my mind." He stumped into the kitchen, banged around a bit, returned with a couple of fried-egg sandwiches and a cup of tea, flopped onto the sofa, and stayed there until the small hours, playing us lots of Bob Dylan and shaking his head in bewilderment at his own folly.

This was essentially business as usual at our house. For most of our 12 years here, students have drifted in and out. The current crowd – Robby; the banjo-playing math whiz Paul; the anarchically charming Becka; the dryly funny, neurotic Pat; the Thursday-night-movie kids – tend to arrive late at night, help themselves to whatever they can find in the kitchen, and head for the fire pit in the back yard. We spend a great deal of our time with people half our age, and a fair bit of our money keeping up with their appetites for pizza, bagels and s'mores.

I teach at a Jesuit university, and I could explain our relationships with students in terms of the Ignatian idea of cura personalis, the vocation of the educator to attend to the development of her students as whole people. I would be a great deal more productive as a scholar were it not for the constant stream of semi-resident youngsters.

But it would be absurd for me to get high-minded about it. Robby and Paul and the rest, and their predecessors over the last 12 years, are simply friends. I really like them, and I really like having them around. I like their hilarity, their intensity, their warmth. I like the window they give me into campus life. I like it that they get suddenly inspired to bake cookies at 2 a.m.

Most particularly I like that they are making themselves up as they go along. It is a peril of adulthood in general and perhaps of academic life in particular that we are expected to have, if not necessarily all the answers, at least a fair number of them, and a reasonably well-thought-out vision. But I am often far more perplexed by life than professional form allows me to admit.

I love it that our students are even more confused than I am and that they are free to be transparent in their confusion. I love watching them bricolage their way out of adolescence into adulthood, trying on and discarding self-images, life plans and loves like American Eagle hoodies.

It keeps me honest; it reminds me that many of my own tastes, habits and even convictions were picked up more or less arbitrarily in the fast-flowing tumult of my own college years, and fitted together on the fly. It helps me resist the impulse to retrofit a smug and artificial coherence to my own 40-something self. C.S. Lewis writes that the man who learns to appreciate fine wine but in the process loses his taste for lemonade has in effect gained nothing; so also the woman who learns the stability and fidelity of adulthood, but in doing so learns to despise the full-hearted folly of youth.

Of course, these friendships, as stimulating, sincere and damn good fun as they are, are thoroughly asymmetrical, and their asymmetry needs to be respected by all parties.

By and large the students police their side of it very efficiently. Most start out on their best company behavior. They realize fairly quickly that our standards as regards formal etiquette are very low and our tolerance for puerile humor, feet on the furniture and lame YouTube videos is pretty high, and relax accordingly.

But they understand the need for discretion. We know, and they know that we know, the sort of things that even the best students get up to after hours, and they appreciate that, unless they are in trouble, it's best not to tell us details.

For our part, the asymmetry is an education in itself. The perspective it gives me expands the reach of my human sympathies. One tends to form adult friendships with people with whom one has a lot in common, with the toxic result that one can slip into thinking that all the decent people are basically like oneself.

But it is easy to like young people whom my own restricted preferences and prejudices might well set me against if we were the same age. One of the reasons I'm particularly fond of Robby is precisely that my censorious, overachieving, 19-year-old self would have found him both contemptible and threatening, but from the majestic heights of 41, I can enjoy his loopy wit and appreciate the deep kindness beneath his slacker profanity.

I'm a better teacher and possibly a better person, too, for the hand that this asymmetry gives me out of my own petty bigotries.

That we can see and understand our students more clearly and completely than they can us means both that we may be useful and that we must be careful. We have responsibilities to them; beyond the obligations of basic courtesy, they have none to us. They assign us a role in the current phase of their lives; we play it. They set the boundaries where it suits them; we patrol them.

Students who have found their way here do so for a variety of reasons. Some find the campus social scene dangerous or distasteful or just tedious. Some are homesick and like being around domestic life and children. Some need a temporary port in a crisis. Some are intrigued by our vaguely bohemian household – no TV, plenty of lentils and organic yogurt. Some, I guess, just like us. Some use us as a sounding board for ideas they are working through. Robby, who is attempting – with rather mixed results but with sincerity – to live more thoughtfully than in his heedless high school days, knew that we would get his reasons for skipping the teenage-girls-in-a-hot-tub scene and came in search of understanding and affirmation as well as tea and fried eggs.

All of these are legitimate things to ask from us. We are mature enough, our lives stable enough, to accommodate a variety of roles. Within reason, we can be all things to all people, and over the years we've become pretty good at figuring out who we can most usefully be what things to. We observe, very closely, the students who collect at our house, listen to what they tell us, watch how they talk to one another, discuss them at length when they've gone home and affirm, nudge, reassure, query and challenge them as seems best.

Most of the time, for all we know, our nudging, affirming and challenging are water off a duck's back. We have no control over what they do with what guidance we try to offer. It's not our business. They are, after all, grown-ups, albeit fledgling ones. We make available ourselves, our house, our affection for them and what wisdom about life we have acquired, but it is up to them to determine what use, if any, they want to make of all that.

It is also up to them to determine for how long. Some former students are among our best friends; we stay in close touch and travel cross-country to meet their new babies. Others simply close the chapter in their life of which we were part.

Robby might still be a friend when he's as old as we are now, or he might outgrow us by this time next semester. If that happens, I'll be a little sad, but that will be entirely my own problem. Being outgrown is part of what we sign on for when we open our door, and it would be out of line for us to try to impose the stability of our social affections on the changeability of people at a different stage in life.

The chapter of our life in which young people show up at midnight and cook themselves eggs without a by-your-leave may close, too. We're getting older – in the last few years, we've moved into the age range of our students' parents. Our own children are getting older – before long, they will move into the age range of our students. The current state of affairs, as dearly as I love it, and as deeply as it defines my life in this job, may not last much longer. This crowd might be succeeded, gradually and organically, by another lot, and another: That is what has happened so far. On the other hand, they might be the last to decide to make themselves at home here.

In the meantime, we are making the most of the late nights and the messy kitchens of this bright, noisy and joyful phase of our lives, as young lives swirl past ours and out into their own.

Maria Poggi Johnson is director of the University of Scranton's graduate program in theology. Her e-mail address is johnsonm1@scranton.edu.
Comments 
9th-Jul-2010 12:11 am (UTC)
Maria Johnson commented on your post:

"Ooh, lookit! Fame!!!"

To see the comment thread, follow the link below:
http://www.facebook.com/n/?profile.php&id=20310785&v=wall&story_fbid=646527766214&mid=2a064faG135eb01G27dd95cG36&n_m=novakfreek%40aol.com
9th-Jul-2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
Many of my former students have "friended" me on Facebook, and while I was aware some boundary issues might come with it, so far it's been an unbounded DELIGHT. I could see myself being the person with the open door in a small college town, at least one night a week, with people dropping by to screen things they've made or things they love. Great article.
10th-Jul-2010 04:26 am (UTC)
Glad you liked it. Glader that you get it. :-)
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