A week before the start of fall classes, Bethel’s faculty gathered yesterday morning for its annual retreat. The keynote speaker was our own Prof. Sam Mulberry ’99 — who was kind enough to let us post the text of his address. Not only will you learn a lot more about Sam’s story, but you’ll find plenty of connections to our department, as he reflected on his experience as a History major at Bethel who has returned to teach Bethel courses like GES130 Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) and HIS230L World War I.
August 27, 2019. When I was asked to give this talk and I saw the date, I immediately thought back to twenty years ago. Do you remember what you were doing on August 27, 1999? I do. I was sitting in a classroom a thousand miles from home in Mobile, Alabama. Everyone seemed triumphant and exhausted. It was a Friday morning and the night before we had all witnessed the greatest sporting event that I had ever seen.
It was my initiation into Alabama high school football and it was a doozy. As we were filing in to Ladd-Peebles Stadium, I was informed by a number of folks — all eager to teach a Northerner about “real” football — that this game was one of Alabama’s longest running football rivalries. Since 1935, the Murphy Panthers have batted their crosstown rivals — my school, the McGill-Toolen Yellow Jackets — for the right to paint the cannon on Mobile’s Government Street in their school colors. I was then told that I didn’t need to invest in any orange paint — somehow my Yellow Jacket’s official colors were orange and black (it’s a long story) — since McGill-Toolen hadn’t beaten Murphy in seven years, was coming off of a 1-9 record the season before, and was starting a junior quarterback named Michael Machen, who hadn’t even been on the team for his first two years of high school. Needless to say, my expectations were low.
The game started according to script. Murphy scored twice in the first quarter to take a 14-0 lead, and I settled in to soak up the atmosphere. Then right before halftime, Michael Machen broke loose for a 61-yard touchdown run to keep the game within reach for the Yellow Jackets. Murphy came back on the first drive of the second half to push the score to 21-7 and remind everyone who was in charge. From there, however, a series of Murphy miscues let McGill-Toolen back in the game. The Yellow Jackets managed two late scores to tie the game at 21.
In the first overtime, McGill-Toolen was held scoreless from the 1-yard line. As Murphy was setting up for the game winning field goal, the Yellow Jacket coach sent Machen in on defense to try to make magic happen. When the ball was snapped, Machen managed to break straight up the middle and block the kick to keep our hopes alive. In the second overtime, Murphy scored to take at 28-21 lead. The Yellow Jackets found themselves down seven, fourth and goal from the 22-yard line. Machen scrambled in the backfield for what seemed like forever before finally hitting a receiver in the back of the end zone to tie the game 28-28.
The Yellow Jackets scored quickly in the third overtime to take a 35-28 lead. Murphy answered right away with a quick touchdown. As they were lining up to for the game-tying extra point, Michael Machen was again was sent out to join the defense. The snap, the kick, and another miraculous block by Machen sealed the Yellow Jacket win. Had you told me that Machen proceeded to tear off his jersey to reveal a big Superman “S” emblazoned on his chest, I think I would have believed it.
I’m not the type of sports fan who cheers and yells much during moments like this. I’m more inclined to find the nearest person, stare them in the eyes, and declare, “We live in a world where this can happen.” And that night it did happen. The cannon in downtown Mobile was painted orange and adorned with the words: “McGill-Toolen 35, Murphy 34.” (Okay, if I’m being honest it actually said: “McGill-Tollen 35, Murphy 34.” Yes, the students at my school spelled the name of their own school wrong on the triumphant cannon. As the poet once said: “They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine.”)
I keep referring to McGill-Toolen as “my” school and that is because it was the school at which I was teaching. But in truth, it hadn’t been mine for very long. I had moved to Mobile just thirteen days earlier and I was at the end of my first week of teaching 9th and 10th grade art appreciation. I was twenty-two years old, living in a monastery with four elderly Catholic brothers, completely separated from everyone I knew and everyone who really knew me, teaching 14 and 15 year olds about art – a job I probably wasn’t qualified for in a field I was surely not qualified to teach. I know: this sounds like the set-up to a mediocre 1980s sitcom. But it was also my life. How did I end up here?
I guess that I had Bethel to thank for that. Earlier that April — with the end of my senior year closing in and no clear job opportunities on the horizon — I received a phone call out of the blue from a man in New Orleans named Brother Henry Gaither. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming down south to teach at one of his order’s schools. For some reason — let’s call it fear and desperation — I said, “Yes,” and he booked me a flight.
On the day I graduated, I hopped on a plane and flew south. The next day, I toured McGill-Toolen High School and met with their principal, Dr. Bill Lee. He asked me what I thought could teach, and I said, “Well, I majored in History, but I also took a lot of classes in in Literature, Philosophy, Art, Math, Religion, and Computer Science.” He responded, “We could use an Art teacher, sound good?” I said “Yes,” and my fate was sealed.
Let me just say this now: that is a weird story about getting a teaching job. I want to tell you that they did a thorough educational background check on me, or looked at my college transcripts, or asked me to draw or paint a picture for them, or even really asked me any follow up questions…but as far as I can remember, none of that ever happened. Now to be fair, they were hiring for a job that paid only $100 a month with room and board and a year of college loan deferment, but still.
At this point I can feel this talk veering towards becoming an indictment of late-90s Alabama secondary education hiring policy, but I want to gently steer away from that if I may.
Instead, I want to think about the answer that I gave when Dr. Lee asked me what I thought I could teach. What was I thinking listing all of those things? If you asked me today whether I thought I could teach a History class my answer would probably be, “Ah…I don’t know…maybe.” But twenty years ago I rattled off a list of subjects without even blinking. It was a moment of supreme confidence coming from a fairly unconfident person. Perhaps we can chalk it up to the arrogance of youth coupled with desperation for employment. I’m sure that those things were in the mix, but I’m also pretty certain that there was something else going on. And that is where my experience as a student at Bethel and the work that all of you do comes into play.
When I have the opportunity to serve on panels at Bethel admissions events, there are two questions that inevitably get asked, and I think that my answers to these questions explain my response to Dr. Lee twenty years ago. The first question is some version of: Why did you come to Bethel, and why do you stay? There is no good reason why I came to Bethel as a student, and by that I mean there is no clear logical reason that I came.
I grew up in southern Minnesota. I attended Catholic schools. My religious life was shaped largely by some dedicated teachers, a few of whom were fairly progressive, social justice-minded Dominican nuns. My main reason for even applying was that my best friend was Baptist and was committed to attending Bethel. In truth, I applied mostly as a favor to him. Early in the spring of my senior year of high school, I spent a Saturday morning determined to make my college decision. I had narrowed my choices down to Bethel and Notre Dame. I sat in my basement and read the course catalog for each school. Now admittedly the course catalog is kind of strange document to choose, but you have to remember that 1995 was pre-internet – at least for me – so there wasn’t much else to look to. I read both catalogs cover to cover and when I reached the end of the Bethel catalog I just somehow felt – in what I can only describe as “in my heart” – that I was supposed to go to Bethel. I know that it is not exactly John Wesley’s conversion experience at Aldersgate Street, but it really was probably the first real pietistic experience in my life.
When I think about my four years as a student at Bethel, the overwhelming feeling that I had was the feeling that I was being invested in.
I found myself surrounded by professors who were investing in me — in my education and in the person that I was becoming. And let me say right now that I was not special. I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating or falsely humble kind of way. What I mean by that is that while my specific experiences were unique to me, my experience of this community — this faculty — actively investing in me was not unique. This was a common component of the experience of being a student here.
There are so many people I could name who invested in me, but I want to point to a few. The first and probably most constant presence in my life as a Bethel student was a professor named Virginia Lettinga. It makes me feel very old when I realize that if your connection with Bethel began after 2003, you likely don’t know what a Lettinga is.
Let me give you some quick context. Virginia and her husband Neil both taught CWC. They were both integral to making CWC run, and Virginia was central to the day to day operations of the course. She also oversaw the CWC teaching assistants, was the co-director of the Academic Enrichment and Supporter Center (AESC), did academic counseling, directed the Fresh Start Program for a while, and co-taught an interim course on World War I.
(Does that sound familiar? As I read those sentences I realize that my whole career at Bethel walks the fine line between loving homage and identity theft.)
I worked as one of Virginia’s TAs for five semesters and in that time she was constantly finding new ways to invest in me. She gave me every opportunity to learn to be a teacher. She was always putting me in positions to teach whether it was one-on-one tutoring, working with a small group, or leading a workshop of eighty or more students. She believed in me as a student and as a TA. In 2001 it was Virginia who invited me back to Bethel to teach CWC. It was Virginia who asked me to help her with tutor training. It was Virginia who convinced me to do a few AESC counseling appointments per week. When she and Neil announced that they were leaving Bethel to begin ministry work in British Columbia, it occurred to me that Virginia had been preparing me to pick up her work ever since I started as her TA in 1996 — even though there was no way then that she could have known that that moment would ever come.
Another professor who deeply invested in me was Diana Magnuson. In my first semester as a History major, I found myself in two of her classes. I remember her asking me what I wanted to do after college. I said that I wanted to go to graduate school and eventually teach at a place like Bethel. And my big dream was to one day teach a course like CWC. She hired me as her TA and found me work that would prepare me for the job that I wanted. She had me lead exam reviews and tutor her students. She taught me how to write good quizzes and how to give helpful feedback when grading.
And when it came time to apply to graduate school, she was the person who got me in the door. I know, because I remember getting a letter of rejection from the U of MN, and then a few weeks later this was followed up by a letter of acceptance and a research assistantship. In the weeks between that first letter and the second, Diana had reached out to her colleagues at the U of MN and asked them to give me a second look. That act of kindness — that act of investment in me — fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life.
I know what it feels to be invested in. This is what you do when you reach out to a student. When you give them a little more of your time. You all do this every day, and I want you to know that it matters. It mattered for me.
And it wasn’t just those folks with whom I had a professor-TA relationship who were investing in me. Nearly every time I stepped into a Bethel classroom I encountered a teacher who was there to invest in me, if only I would let them. They offered me what they could teach me about their subject matter and they also gave me daily lessons about how to teach. They served as a constant example of how they teach. There is nothing quite like watching someone teaching their heart out. There is nothing that I find more inspiring.
The best academic advice that I ever received when I was a student came from Neil Lettinga, Bethel’s European history professor and the husband of Virginia. I had recently changed my major from a one with a lot of required credits, Computer Science, to a major with relatively few, History. This meant that all of the sudden I had a lot more elective credits than I had planned. I remember asking Neil what he thought I should do with those electives. Should I try to double-major or pick up a minor or two? Neil’s advice for me was that with what I wanted to do, a minor or even another major probably wasn’t going to matter that much. Instead, I should go out and talk to students that I respected from other departments and ask them who they thought were the best teachers at Bethel. Then just take classes from those teachers regardless of the subject matter.
Simply put, he told me to minor in the best teachers at Bethel. Watch them teach. Learn what you can from them. That was great advice it led me to classrooms, subjects, readings, ideas and professors that I might not have encountered otherwise.
Then more than twenty years later in spring of 2018, I was on sabbatical and returned to this advice and built my entire project around it. I spent my semester interviewing some of the best teachers at this school. And one of my favorite questions to ask them was: Who was your favorite teacher? It was so interesting to hear the wide array of stories that they told. I spent a long while trying to figure out what the thread running through all those stories was. I edited together each person’s story and used it as the opening to my film, Why We Teach. As I watched it, I realized what connected all these stories from people talking about their favorite teachers. As they were talking about their favorite teachers — the people who inspired them, the people who made them want to teach — they all, without knowing it, were kind of describing themselves as a teacher.
This really hit home for me when I was listening to one of my favorite profs: psychologist Kathy Nevins. Here is the story that she told:
It is a story about how a teacher managed to see past the syllabus and course requirements and find a student who was truly energized by the questions. He found a way to take the passions of that student and recreate the course for her on the fly. As she was telling that story, it dawned on me that if you asked me to tell stories about the most important teachers in my life, I’d have almost the exact same story to tell. But in my story, it is Kathy Nevins in the role of the professor who is seeing past the syllabus and requirements… and the student is me. In a single moment, sitting in a dank AC 3rd floor classroom, Kathy reoriented the way I thought about the class I was taking and really opened my eyes up to what was possible.
It is moments like these that often serve to sustain us as students and as teachers. But sometimes it feels like these moments are rare. This can be true, and there are many days — probably most days — where we don’t feel like what we are doing is really reaching our students. Sometimes the impact of your teaching and the investment that you are making takes a long time to take hold in a student. There are many cases where you will never see the fruits of your labor.
There was a class that I took during interim of my senior year that I would have described at the time as interesting, but ultimately frustrating. That is probably not the quote that you want to read your course evaluations. For all I know, I probably even wrote that on the IDEA form for the class. The course was Biblical Theology of Justice with Karen McKinney. As frustrated as I was while I was taking that class — a frustration born of my wanting to think that there were solutions to my problems, to America’s problems, to society’s problems and Karen constantly insisting to me that, “No, it’s more complicated than that and more important” — I can honestly say that the things we talked about in that class have stuck with me like none other. This has been especially true over the last five years. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about the issues we talked about in that class. I’m constantly thinking about the simulations that Karen had us work through in class and they help frame the way that I think about questions of justice. I am deeply sorry that I was a frustrating student, and I’m truly grateful that I was frustrated. I didn’t see it in the moment, but she was investing deeply in me and in all of us.
It is in these exact moments that we realize how much the acts of teaching and learning really are acts of faith. The purest articulation of this idea in the classroom that I’ve seen came this past January when I was teaching in Europe with another one of my favorite teachers and best friends: Chris Gehrz. We were on one of the last days of our World War I travel course. Our group had made it to Munich and had just spent some very somber time touring the concentration camp in Dachau. We began our time sending the students out to explore the museum and the grounds of the camp, and Chris had asked them to reconvene after a time in the Protestant chapel at one end of the camp. I took this photo of Chris addressing the students.
At one level, I think that this serves as a pretty good testament to the power of study abroad and learning history on location. Do you notice how the students are standing? This is a group of people who had been together for three solid weeks. We had traveled across Europe together studying World War I. We — in the most literal sense — had been in the trenches together. It’s as close to a family as a classroom can get. But after about ninety minutes of walking through Dachau — of being deeply impacted by learning about humanity’s potential for inhumanity in a really direct way — no one could bring themselves to stand within three feet of another person. Not even their closest friends.
As interesting as that is, however, the thing that really moved me at this moment was what Chris was saying to them. It is something that I had heard him say before. He talked about it when I interviewed him back in the spring of 2018. But it’s different when you hear it said in the classroom. It was one of those moments that I love when a teacher just puts all their cards on the table and opens up to their students. Here is the gist of what he said:
This leads naturally into the second question that inevitably gets asked at admissions events: What advice do you have for students as they enter into college? There are so many things that I want to tell them, but I always seem to find my way to the same answer: Whether you decide to go to Bethel or not, take your general education courses seriously.
Some students come to Bethel with an absolutely clear sense of what they want to major in, some come with no idea at all, and most come with what they think is a clear sense of what they want to major in… only to learn that they have no idea. In all of these cases, however, this advice rings true. If a student is willing to go into their gen ed courses with an open heart, and we’re willing to teach our hearts out, then those courses have the power to change lives.
That’s what happened to me. I came to Bethel as a Computer Science major. In my first semester I had Math and CS classes, but I was also enrolled in CWC to fulfill my gen ed requirements. A year later I had changed my major and was telling Diana Magnuson that my dream was to someday teach a class like CWC at a place like Bethel. Five years after that that’s exactly what I was doing. We live in a world where this can happen.
So what was it about CWC? Sure, I loved the subject matter, but that wasn’t entirely it. There was something more that drew me to it. There was something else, something deeper humming beneath the surface of the course. It was a humming that hinted at this being about something bigger and more important than a set of readings, or vocab terms, or theories, or tests and papers or even pathways to future careers.
Every once in a while that humming that I sensed under the course broke through and made itself known loud and clear. I want to share one of those moments with you. This clip comes from a CWC lecture from back in the fall of 2005. It features one of my favorite teachers. It is pulled from an old VHS tape and the quality is not the best, but it is pretty special to me. Let me set the stage. Bethel Philosophy professor David Williams was doing a pretty normal thing: lecturing on ancient Greek philosophy. He was talking to the students in CC 313 about Plato’s theory of the soul and his understanding of reality and the forms. Like I said, pretty common CWC fare. As he was wrapping up, David said this:
That’s it. That’s the hum underneath it all. We live in a world — we teach in a school — where that can happen. And I need to tell you this that was not “A very special episode of CWC.” That was just a regular B-Mod lecture in CC 313. Is there any wonder why — to me — that classroom is nothing less than holy ground?
And CWC is not special. Well, it’s special to me, but it’s not unique. That hum under the surface is not the sole domain of GES130. It ran through many of the classes that I had here at Bethel. It hummed while Dale Johnson did painting demonstrations. It hummed under discussions led by Kathy Nevins. It hummed through Karen McKinney’s in-class simulations. It hummed when Kevin Cragg told stories of the ancient world. It’s that hum that assures me that what we all do in these classrooms really is about the most important things. It is about real transformation. It hums under the classes that all of you teach, and it breaks through every time that you are really teaching your heart out. That’s why I’m inclined to think that your classrooms are holy ground, too.
I realize that I keep saying “teach your heart out.” What do I mean by that? It’s hard to say precisely. Most of me wants to say that you all know exactly what I mean. In truth I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve been in classrooms as a student when someone is doing it. You know what it feels like to do it yourself. I have this little part of me that wants to try to explain exactly what I mean when I say “teach your heart out,” but I’m too skeptical about trying to explain those things that we know through feeling. It’s why I’m always nervous to talk too much about my own personal faith. Sometimes when I talk too much about the things that matter most to me — when I try to convert those things to words — they cease to be what they are. My faith — the thing that drives and shapes who I am — is turned into something that sounds like life advice or even worse a set of theological arguments. And in the same way saying anything I would say beyond “teach your heart out” might seem like it is getting dangerously close to being teaching advice. And I’m in no position to give any of you teaching advice.
But I also feel too strongly that I should say something more — if only just a little. Instead of avoiding teaching advice, I’ll steer right into it. I’ll try and say it in as few words as possible, and then we can move on. They’re not even my words. It’s the most important teaching advice I’ve ever received and it comes, once again, from Neil Lettinga.
The advice is simply this: “Teach well.”
Now to be fair to Neil, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t saying it to me as teaching advice exactly. It was more of his way of ending a conversation. As I walked away, he’d always send me off by saying, “Teach well.” Come to think of it, I’m pretty certain that he didn’t intend this to be any other than his way of saying goodbye. But as a new teacher who didn’t know what I was doing, I took my inspiration where I could get it. It took it as a kind of grand commission to be faithful to the example of every great teacher that I’d ever had. To take my student’s seriously. To really offer up myself — the thing that I had spent much of my life trying to hide — to the class. To be sincere even when sincerity didn’t feel cool. To challenge and support. To love and forgive. To realize that all of this can be sacred. To treat that classroom as holy ground.
So when Dr. Lee asked me twenty years ago what I thought I could teach, that is why I rattled off that list of subjects. I had spent four years listening to that hum in these classrooms. I followed it from room to room, class to class. I had spent four years surrounded by people who were investing in me and investing in everyone around me. They did this in ways that I could see and ways that I will never fully know. What else could I have told him?
And it was that investment and that hum resonating in my heart that brought me to that classroom twenty years ago today, tired and triumphant. It was those things that led me back to that classroom day after day for the whole year. In truth, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how to teach. But all of my heroes were teachers, and I felt that I owed something to them and something to that hum. So I lashed together the experiences that I’d had — the teachers that I’d encountered, the classes I’d taken, the things the I’d read — and carried them with me into the classroom. There were a few successes and more failures. On most days I managed to survive. It was hard.
There were some mornings when I would sit alone in my room and wonder if I could muster up the courage to go back into the classroom. In moments like this, I would go to my shelf, grab a book, and hope for inspiration. There was one book that I found myself returning to again and again. I keep a copy of it in office to this day. I read it when times get tough – when after too many meetings and discussions about budget cuts and another round of prioritization leaves me feeling like I’m not sure I have anything more to give. One of my favorite questions to ask people is: If you could recommend one book which could be used to explain something about who you are and how you experience to the world, what book would it be?
For me it’s a novella by J.D. Salinger called Seymour: An Introduction. It is a digressive story in which the narrator — Buddy Glass, himself an English teacher at a women’s college in upstate New York — attempts to make an account of his older brother Seymour — another teacher/poet — who committed suicide about ten years earlier. On the last pages of the story, Buddy writes:
I’m finished with this. Or, rather, it’s finished with me. Fundamentally, my mind has always balked at any kind of ending. How many stories have I torn up since I was a boy simply because they had what that old Checkov-baiting noise Somerset Maugham calls a Beginning, a Middle, and an End? Thirty-five? Fifty? One of the thousand reasons I quit going to the theatre when I was about twenty was that I resented like hell filing out of the theatre just because some playwright was forever slamming down his silly curtain. (Whatever happened to that stalwart bore Fortinbras? Who eventually fixed his wagon?) Nonetheless, I’m done here. There are one or two more fragmentary physical-type remarks I’d like to make, but I feel too strongly that my time is up. Also, it’s twenty to seven, and I have a nine-o’clock class. There’s just enough time for a half hour nap, a shave, and maybe a cool, refreshing blood bath. I have an impulse – more of an old urban reflex than an impulse, thank God – to say something mildly caustic about the twenty-four young ladies, just back from big weekends at Cambridge or Hanover or New Haven, who will be waiting for me in Room 307, but I can’t finish writing a description of Seymour – even a bad description, even one where my ego, my perpetual lust to share top billing with him, is all over the place – without being conscious of the good, the real. This is too grand a thing to be said (so I’m just the man to say it), but I can’t be my brother’s brother for nothing, and I know – not always, but I know – there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307. There isn’t one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine. This thought manage to stun me: There’s no place I’d really rather go right now that into Room 307. Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?