New chapters, same story

It’s July. The good news: thousands upon thousands of students graduated from their schools last month.

The bad news: the pandemic made the last few months of the school year frustrating and chaotic, and social distancing meant cancelling the time-honored tradition of commencement.

The tradition exists for a reason: such rituals are important. Students have worked hard to reach that milestone, and the achievement needs to be marked and celebrated. But school isn’t just about filling heads with facts and knowledge. Students have changed; education at its best is transformative and character-building. And when one chapter comes to a close, some ritual is needed to turn the page for the next chapter to begin. Thus, as an educator myself, I am deeply heartened by the creativity schools and faculty mustered last month to honor their grads while keeping them safe.

The spring term, after all, was a trying one for students and faculty alike. At our institution, all spring classes had to hurriedly shift into what we not-so-fondly dubbed “crisis online” mode — which often meant little more than swapping the face-to-face environment of the classroom for the virtual environment of an overstuffed Zoom meeting. It was our only viable option, but a poor substitute. Soon, Zoom fatigue began to set in for everyone.

Watching lectures online just isn’t the same as being in a classroom, where students can at least nudge each other in the ribs every once in a while and roll their eyes together at the professor’s corny attempts at humor. I also suspect that watching hour after hour of online lectures puts people into a more passive state of mind, more appropriate to binge-watching Netflix than to graduate education. How can you concentrate when you’re continually seized with urge to get up and make yourself a sandwich?

Already by the middle of the quarter, social distancing had left many students tired, lonely, and mourning the loss of our key graduation rituals. One of my colleagues and I, therefore, masterminded a Zoom/YouTube event to celebrate and encourage our grads. Institutionally, we couldn’t use official language like “graduation” or “commencement” for the ritual, so we dubbed it a “launch celebration” — a time to rejoice together over launching a new group of grads into their vocations.

In my 100% completely unbiased opinion, the event went well, perhaps even better than expected. But this post isn’t about that.

This post is about hope.

. . .

I personally have been resisting the move to online education for years, and COVID-19 forced me to try new teaching technologies that I otherwise would have avoided for as long as possible. It’s been a steep learning curve. It still is.

And while I can honestly say that it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, it still isn’t my first choice. I’m unapologetically old-school (feel free to leave off the word “school,” if you prefer), and have spent a lot of time in the pulpit. I would much rather be in the room with students, making eye contact and sharing space, responding to each other’s verbal and nonverbal signals in real time.

But even in an artificial and virtual environment, it was good to be able to see their faces again as a group; to remember our past interactions; to sense their expectancy. Even if just for a while, it felt like a reset.

My colleagues and I have been doing the work of training Christian therapists for a long time. It’s our mission and ministry. But somewhere in the busyness of a normal year, let alone one hammered by a pandemic, we can forget why we do what we do. The doing becomes an end in itself, made more stressful by having to surmount unexpected obstacles.

Having to think and plan about new ways to celebrate our students renewed my sense of mission, even in the midst of the frustration. Our students are why we do what we do. We have the ongoing honor of serving God by serving them, so that they in turn can serve God by serving others. We’ve had the privilege of being part of an important and formative chapter in their lives. It’s time to turn the page, to send them forth into the next chapter, and to welcome yet another group to train and mentor.

Who knows what plot twists lay ahead? But every new chapter is part of the same ongoing story of how God uses the gifts of his people to serve his purposes. That’s the through line. That’s the continuing theme and the ongoing reality, whatever form it may take.

And somehow, that gives me hope.