Aug  2016 23
In Praise of Teachers

The new school year is starting around the country. When I was a child, this time of year (well, actually, after Labor Day, which is the proper starting time for school!) meant pencils, new shoes (leather, semi-dress, no “sneakers”), slacks (no jeans), button-down shirts. And, at this time of year, I remember and give thanks for my teachers.

In my personal pantheon of teachers I keep on pedestals, I have three whose lessons I return to again and again.

  • Herr Wilke, my high school German teacher. He and his family were refugees from post-World War II Germany. They escaped to the West as borders were closing, on bicycles. I took Mr. Wilke for three years of high school German.

He was a demanding teacher with an endearing little boy’s laugh. Class conversation—all “auf Deutsch”— often diverged from the texts into philosophy and life. He could not stand hesitant silences following questions. “People, ve are vasting time!” Risk an answer was the lesson learned! Every student who risked was treated as heroic.

  • Dr. Lamar Cope, a college religion teacher. Lamar was the first, and perhaps only, teacher I’ve ever had who was a mentor. It was not a role either one of us consciously chose or bestowed. It happened. He was worthy of the vulnerable trust I put in him. He taught New Testament primarily.

    I first learned about the Jesus of history from him. He was a genuine professor—a person with something to profess. He was also a person of questing faith, who welded faith, the sciences, and scholarly inquiry.

    As was the case with many profs at that small liberal arts college, Lamar’s home and life were open to students. From Herr Wilke and from Dr. Cope, I experienced what is meant to fulfill a vocation rather than do a job.

  • That distinction between job and vocation was also abundantly evident in Dr. Martin Marty, my PhD advisor. I’ve known Marty since high school, as I was fortunate to attend high school with his sons.

When the University of Chicago accepted me into the PhD program, Marty was the professor with whom I wanted to study. I wanted work on the theology and history of the ecumenical movement, and Marty was the only person at the University who could help me directly.

During my years at the Div School, as well as in his books, Marty taught me how to think about modern religious history in the U.S. Marty has a wonderful, imaginative knack for creating ways to think about a subject, hooks and frames for the data of history.

John Wesley somewhere wrote to his preachers that (paraphrasing) “though we think we the scholars, we must reason with the common person.” Marty does that translation extraordinarily well.

These teachers live in my head and my heart. They still challenge, discomfort, question, test, and encourage me.

The new school year is opening. It is a good time to remember, give thanks, and pass on the good we received from our teachers.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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