Beginning of the end

“Pity!” he said, and sighed, and paused. “It is always the way of events in this life,” he continued presently: “no sooner have you got settled in a pleasant resting-place, than a voice calls out to you to rise and move on, for the hour of repose is expired.”

Jane Eyre

Throughout our time here, students have been processing their personal experience of Britain both on their own and in small groups. Each of them has chosen a spot in Liverpool to visit every week for thirty minutes, with no screens. They simply sit. Then they write a short, ungraded reflection—for which I provide an optional prompt. 

They also meet every week with what I call a “Through Group,” a three- or four-person cohort that remains consistent throughout the semester, people with whom they can talk through the ups and downs of life in Britain. Each week, someone from each Through Group emails or texts me a quick summary of where they met and what they talked about. Again, I provide a prompt that they’re free to ignore.

This is the first week since January when neither of those things is required, however—our host institution is keeping them very busy—so I devoted some class time Monday night to the personal aspects of our experience.

Specifically, I asked students about two things.

  • First, how to handle FOMO (fear of missing out; all students know this acronym—it’s a thing now). As we find our time here growing short, students will increasingly panic about the things in England that they haven’t seen—and might never see. To make the issue somewhat tangible, I asked them how they would respond to someone who said this:

As eager as I am to go home, I also really want to make the most of this one chance to live in England, and I already regret not seeing all of the things I won’t get to see, so I just need to try to see as many of them as I can before we leave.

  • Second, I asked students to make a list of practices and habits that they’ve picked up in England that they’d like to take home with them and continue in the United States. Then I asked them to list specific, concrete commitments that they’d need to make in order to keep those good intentions from evaporating as they flew over the Atlantic Ocean. We talked through some examples. It’s easy for me to say, “I don’t drive here, so I’m going to give up driving back home.” But of course that isn’t going to happen, so I need to say: “I’ll walk to work on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Etc.

As has happened so often this semester, I was humbled and heartened by the wisdom of these students. In response to the FOMO quotation, they recognized the dangers of panic-traveling, scurrying all over a country or continent checking off a bucket list, and they recognized the unique quality of our program—which is to dwell in a single city, with only sporadic trips to a few other places, for a prolonged period of time. It will be easy for most of them to grab two days in Paris in the years to come; living in a single city in England for three and half months is a more precious opportunity. But built into that opportunity is the reality that we’ll miss out even on other parts of Britain. Taking advantage of this moment means being content to dwell well, and if you’re running all over the place, you’re compromising the unique quality of this situation. (I’m not sure that every student has actually lived by this wisdom—they’ve gone abroad at every opportunity, and I’ve heard some of their crazy mad-dash itineraries for after the program ends—but at least they were able to articulate it.)

I was most impressed with the thoughtful resolutions students were considering as they pondered the not-too-distant return home. All I wanted them to do was to make little lists for themselves to get them thinking, and because some of these issues are deeply personal, I hadn’t planned to discuss them. But when I asked, somewhat flippantly, whether anyone wanted to share what they’d written down, almost everyone in the room did want to share.

Some of them were unsurprising: it turns out we don’t need to buy clothes, wash those clothes, or drive a car nearly as much as we thought we did. But most of what they wanted to talk about were relational resolutions.

A number of students have made real strides in terms of independence: they’ve eaten alone in a café for the first time in their lives, and they’ve realized it’s okay. They’re willing to do things that interest them even if it takes them away from a group of friends. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how that virtue develops in a program like ours—which is intently, almost obsessively, driven by work in groups. But there it is.

Several students, however, did a beautiful job of making resolutions about building and maintaining connections to other people—especially people outside their close friend groups. One student resolved to say hi to international students back at Calvin, even if she didn’t know them very well, because she now saw in a new and feeling way the kind of alienation they might be experiencing.

Ruminating on that surprise discussion as I walked to the bus after class, I realized that the deepest, most moving wisdom had grown from wounds: the greatest growth has happened in the students who have had the hardest time. This is not new or surprising. But it’s also quite possible to have the wounds without the wisdom—to struggle and drown. 

“What made the difference?” I asked myself. “What kept those students from drowning? What enabled them to turn their groans into growth?” It wasn’t me, I know that. It might have been the support of the other students. It might have been robust support networks back home invisible to me. It was surely the Holy Spirit, operating both indirectly through these human channels and directly in a student’s heart and mind. 

And of course much of the credit goes to the students themselves. Some of them are still having a tough time. They might not feel like they’re drowning, but they feel like they’re treading water—which is not the same thing as walking on water, as other students seem to be doing. In conversation and in regular reflective writing, I’ve heard some notes of jealousy: everyone else seems to be doing better than I am. What I haven’t seen is a struggling student lashing out at the others. Life has thrown some pain and ugliness at a few of these people, and they’ve all been big enough not to throw all of that onto everyone else. They’ve caught what’s come to them and worked it the best they can.

Based on the midterm results a couple of weeks ago, I’m not entirely confident that all of these students will leave England knowing when the Normans invaded or even able to locate Liverpool on a map. But based on our discussion Monday night, I’m content that the program has already been successful in more important ways. 

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."