Dying to Start the Semester
“I die everyday!” the Apostle Paul writes enthusiastically. What could he possibly mean by such a statement? Regardless of how we understand Paul’s metaphor (dying to self, dying to a behavior, the body in slow decline), if one dies everyday, one must be reborn everyday as well. The beginning of the semester always feels like a rebirth to me. Nothing but possibility lies ahead—the idea of the yet unspoken, unwritten, unread words always thrills me. When I walk into my classes, I am giddy with the anticipation of meeting my incredible students who will uncover the many possibilities I missed while writing my syllabus. It seems perfect, then, to learn that the word “syllabus” emerged as a “misreading” of the Greek word “sittybos,” or “parchment label.” The syllabus acts as a contract that tries to organize the messiness that lies ahead. But the beautiful uncertainty of learning and discovering cannot be tamed, and thus the syllabus will always be misread. We will treat it as a blueprint for the semester, adding due dates to our calendars, but it will never record what is most valuable about any given class.
The poet Mary Reufle writes, “you simply cannot learn and know at the same time, and this is a frustration all artists must bear.” This is the frustration students and teachers must welcome, willingly, at the beginning of each semester. It is the gift of being in the presence of one another. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher called the “exclamation point” an “excitement point,” and this is how I read it in Paul’s statement. There is a deep longing implied in that mark, and it is a longing for what lies ahead, whatever it might be. It always feels somewhat incongruous to me to start the semester in the heat of summer. In Colorado, the seasons here are pushed back a bit—summer stretching into October and spring often not appearing in earnest until June, when we can safely put our snow shovels away. But, when I think of it in Paul’s terms—dying and birthing each and everyday—I see that it isn’t just the start of the semester, or the start of a new season, that offers the possibility of something new. Each and everyday offers us this beauty. It is there on the syllabus in the blank space between each already-scheduled day.