Tuesday Assumption College started its spring semester in typical fashion: With snow on the ground, a chill in the air, and students and faculty alike bundled up as they trod through sub-freezing weather. All of which is usually made easier to bear by the sheer adrenaline surge this extrovert feels when it’s time to throw himself into the mix of colleagues and students; after several weeks of being on my own, it’s usually a sweet relief to be back.
This past week, however, stacked up to be a different challenge. Instead of being away from Assumption students over the break, I’d spent a week with 13 of them, down in my hometown. I wasn’t the escort of the trip – official escort Paul Belsito was with them 24 hours a day; I’m guessing my average was closer to eight. But, of course, that was still more hours with students than the 48-50 I spend teaching any single three credit-hour-a-week course – and in the latter case, the students aren’t wandering my hometown, hanging at my mother’s house, or breaking out my four-decade old game of Battleship.
So how, I wondered, was this first week going to feel different from the first weeks of past semesters? Would I just ride the high of being with some of our most motivated students into a similarly fulfilling semester? Would the grim business of education – all that required reading, police work and grading – make my normal pedagogy a joyless business?
And, above all, how would bonds formed down in Alabama carry over into the semester, let alone translate into future service?
Our group, after all, was succeeded by other college crews, and there will be thousands more in the long rebuilding process in Tuscaloosa. As for the students, while part of a SEND trip’s appeal is the chance to throw one’s self wholeheartedly into a single intensive task with a single group in a single community, we all come back to scattered demands of our multiple communities, ranging from courses and committees to family and friends. And for our seniors, add to that the machinery of applying for post-graduate jobs.
Even though a week is too short a time to measure, I saw encouraging signs. One student managed to catch me at the office amid the turmoil; Nick DiAntonio talked for 20 minutes before my 1 p.m. class, and told me he still planned to take up a volunteer’s offer of tickets to an Alabama game next season. Other students stopped me around campus for handshakes and a few half-hugs; students who didn’t even go on the trip brought up rumors they’d heard about the Tuscaloosa adventure. On Friday afternoon, at the Living Learning Center Interest Circle initial gathering in Hagan, Erin and Kate showed up sporting their Crimson Tide hooded sweatshirts – of course, anyone actually from Alabama would have found them far too thin for the New England cold – and the three of us talked enthusiastically. They gave me the news that Dewayne Searcy, our foreman in Tuscaloosa, and his friend James Shackelford, who got us the reservation at Bob Baumhower’s restaurant for the title game, were still talking about a road trip north when things get a bit warmer.
But even more important than the relationships themselves is the inspiration and information the bonds continue to convey. Example: Erin and Kate showed me a text from Dewayne – which included a picture from the house on which we worked. It turned out Dewayne is texting daily photos of the house into which 82-year-old Appie Jones will move. (Never having texted Dewayne directly, I hadn’t seen them, although I got numerous Facebook messages from the man.) Dewayne taking the time to keep groups updated, letting them know they are remembered, is a classic example of how to meet the challenge that comes after the mountaintop experience has ended – the challenge of following through.
In some ways this is an individual task, which each person has to engage in his or her own way. Those ways might include individual volunteer work, keeping the communication lines open, and/or making donations, modest as they might seem, to an agency’s continued work. But Assumption also works hard to follow through on a communal level. As part of that, Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques – the architect behind all these SEND trips – and I invite all the SEND students (and their escorts) to share their own service stories. Those stories need not be polished; they might be as simple as a single humorous or moving incident on a single day, or the story of a trip and what it meant to the writer. I do recommend you send some our way sooner rather than later, while the details are still fresh in your mind – but at the same time, I figure that every student who has engaged in service has come back with a few memories that will stick for a long time to come. (We’d also love selected photos, particularly ones that come with place and people identified.)
We may have left the geographic locales in which we first merged in the act of serving, but, despite all the distractions of our busy springs, we can find places in our lives to share memories, and build on the same.
This space is one of them.
Come by any time.