It’s been some fifteen years since I finished my Master’s degree at Boston College, so it’s been some fifteen years since I’ve set foot in Gasson Hall with its life-size marble sculpture of the Archangel Michael overpowering Lucifer. Some fifteen years ago, I was a backsliding Catholic, so the iconography of an angel slaying Satan didn’t seem hugely relevant to me: newly arrived in Boston, I was young, hungry, and struggling to balance the demands of graduate studies with the unanticipated rigors of college teaching. Looking at Michael and Lucifer, it was difficult to decide which was more personally relevant to me: was I the angel who slew, or the demon who was slain?
As a graduate Teaching Fellow at Boston College, I occasionally brought my freshman composition students to Gasson Hall so they could sit in the rotunda and write in Michael’s shadow. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish; I guess I thought my students would be awed and inspired by an epic struggle cast in stone, even if they (like me) didn’t entirely believe the mythological details. Having been stunned into silence the first time I’d stumbled into Gasson Hall, I guess I wanted my students to experience something similar, with pen in hand. In retrospect, some fifteen years later, I have no idea what (if anything) resonated with my students at all.
That’s how teaching is. You try to take your students to places they’ve never been, and you hope they’ll share the awe and inspiration you’ve felt. And yet, sharing is a tenuous experience: you can lead a student to water, but you cannot make him think. If I was undecided, some fifteen years ago, how or whether the Archangel Michael was relevant in my marginally Catholic life, why did I think a sculpted stone would speak better to my students?
In Buddhist iconography, the bodhisattva Manjushri is typically shown wielding a sword, just as the Archangel Michael does inside Gasson Hall. Michael’s sword is a weapon of divine judgment, and Manjushri’s sword is the blade of perfect wisdom cutting through illusion. In the fifteen-some years I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I sometimes wonder whether I carry Manjushri’s sword or a wet noodle: having led so many students to water, what exactly have I accomplished? Have I landed any body-blows on the demon of ignorance, or have I been unarmed by his master maneuvers?
With age (and with the retrospective wisdom of fifteen-some years of climbing the same mountain semester after semester), I’ve come to believe that Time holds the sharpest sword of them all. When I was a young, hungry, and struggling Masters student at Boston College just beginning to teach, there was no magical sword of wisdom anyone could have handed me. I had to learn how to teach by teaching, just as my students had (and still have) to learn how to write by writing. The collective teachings of the ages–the example all the the world’s Michaels and Manjushris–are there to inspire and guide us, but ultimately we have to take up our own sword, handling it awkwardly at first but eventually–after some fifteen years, perhaps–perfecting our grip and learning how to manage its heft in our hand. There is no better teacher than Time, who wields a scythe that slashes constantly and repeatedly, slicing back and forth with each passing moment and month. In time, even our most obdurate illusions will fall away, sliced, like stone under a sculptor’s chisel.
Congratulations to Dr. Tim Lindgren, who defended his doctoral dissertation last week in the basement of Boston College’s Gasson Hall. You can click here to read his dissertation, “Place Blogging: Local Economies of Attention.”