May 8th, 2012

Loyola Faculty Portrait

Personal/Theological Notebook: Last Student Mass, the Beginning of Finals, and Fabulous Students

I went to the 9pm Mass at Loyola Sunday night, the last one of the school year, which was a Bluegrass Mass. Leaving the house shortly beforehand, I climbed onto my bike to the gorgeous sound of a nighthawk hunting: the quintessential sound of summer to my northern Illinois-raised ears. The Mass was kind of fabulous. I had to wander a bit, as it had been moved to the big St. Charles Room in the student center, out from its usual spot in the chapel, but I got the feeling that they wisely stalled for a few minutes for just such stragglers as myself, who only found out about the change when they went to the wrong place.

I slipped in to an empty spot, which, as it turned out, was next to my student Alex T. from last semester, who had memorably closed out my course by giving me a large Christmas gift of chocolates, which were very welcome over the holidays. A few other students and staff members caught my eye before things started, waving or saying a few words. And then the music began, calling everyone to worship with a rendition of "I'll Fly Away," as five singers and a four-piece Bluegrass band (upright bass, guitar, violin, and mandolin) provided really tasty accompaniment. The music moved from lively and fun to exquisite and mystical during the Communion, where the three female singers, including my Modern Christian Thought student Cardinal, gave a deeply moving version of a song I'd never heard before, the Wailin' Jennys' song "One Voice," which adapted very easily to the liturgical setting. The Jesuit presiding gave a rich reflection on the significance of this time at Loyola for all the students, but especially for the graduating seniors. If they had not gone through some sort of crisis while there, of their major, of what to do afterward, of belief or of disbelief, then the time was wasted, he argued: that it was such moments of crisis in which we can potentially move to greater clarity and authenticity. I spoke to a number of people after Mass ended, complementing Cardinal on the music, and speaking to Ricardo Marquez from the Jesuit Center, seeing other students like Chad, Michelle, Chris, and Alex H. from the Modern Christian Thought class. Michael K. then introduced me to his girlfriend Alexia, a Loyola grad from last year who I had not met before, and who had flown up to surprise him for the week from her home in Paraguay. He then also invited me to lunch with his family after the graduation ceremony.

So I walked with them, talking with Alexia a bit more (and hoping I hadn't made her angry in any way for advising Michael to move to Nashville with his band – I hadn't!), as we went over to the traditional pancake dinner that's held after the last regular Sunday night student Mass. Curiously, the traditional pancake dinner always actually serves French toast, for which I'd had a specific craving earlier in the week, so that was especially satisfying. Chris, his roommate Jimmy (who drums in the band Jones Unleashed where Michael plays guitar), and their mutual best friend Jeff, a current Catholicism student of mine, all caught up to me here and talked for a bit. I then had some talk with Diane B. from the Loyola Institute for Ministry, who had been roundly applauded after Mass for her service living in one of the dorms, and we caught up on one another's news, before I settled in with yummy French toast with Chris and some others I'd not met before, lacking only raspberries, which they'd run out of by the time I got to the head of the line. After dinner, a few people stood and talked for a bit over in the main lounge, where Jeff, Jimmy and Michelle were ensconced with computers, studying or working prior to finals picking up in the morning. I announced that I had to go finish preparing my Catholicism exam so that I could prevent Jeff from graduating, which he took with a sheepish grimace, but which line seemed to especially please Michelle, and headed out. After finishing the exam and making my copies, I stopped by the student center again on my way out of campus, where I got into a brief conversation with Jimmy and Jeff about the forthcoming Peter Jackson adaptation of The Hobbit, the fears being expressed about it and the virtues of filming at 24 versus 30 (or more!) frames per second, and whether it was a greater priority to read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire or Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. I extricated myself relatively quickly, though, so that enthusiastic geek culture conversation wouldn't distract them any further from their work. All in all, a cool Mass and aftermass.

Today, in giving the first session of my Catholicism course final exam, the students were upbeat and chatty beforehand, teasingly asking about whether I was going to miss them (and laughing at the cuteness as my five year-old niece Sophie tried to FaceTime chat with me as the examination was beginning). And I realized that I really was: that despite all the bad voodoo swamp curses that New Orleans seemed to want to throw at me this semester, and all the distraction that that had provided to complicate my courses, I started to realize that this might have been my favorite semester of college teaching ever. The Modern Christian Thought class of majors and minors has been a very large part of that, with the most prep I have ever had to do, but with the richest payoff in student discussion and exploration, but that these Catholicism sections had also been each fabulous for student engagement, with students rallying each session out of late afternoon/early evening torpor to meet me as thoughtfully and provocatively as I've ever had from students, despite the usual few who lurked in the back corners and refused to be drawn into the mix.

Even as students handed in their exams, along with telling me about summer plans, a few took the time comment on a few points of the relevant text, and one student, who had made me enormously proud by how strongly she had come roaring back in the final weeks of the course after being compromised in the first half of the course by prolonged serious illness, stayed after to talk with me about some of the material and how it had impacted her thinking, making some really thoughtful comments about how a "big picture" course like this affect her plans and understanding for the "concrete" actions she wants to undertake in social service and social policy. And to castigate me for not remaining at Loyola to give her any further coursework.

So I got a gold star for the day, I think, and got to marvel at the almost excessive pile of fabulous students that got showered down upon me this semester. If there are ever days when teaching gets emotionally or mentally exhausting, or feels like an uphill Sisyphusean labour against some sort of other inevitability, these days remind me of the cure to when teaching seems like that: teaching.