Monday, January 27th, 2014 was my last first day of school. I woke up, wished my roommate and fellow-3rd year MDiv a “Happy Last First Day of School!”, and prepared myself for a whirlwind progression of events: a phone meeting with my future employer, a class I was shopping on Apocalyptic Literature, work as a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Career Services, class at the Graduate School of Education, a quick break for dinner, and a live webinar conference course jointly offered through HDS and the Harvard Extension School.
My last first day of school was a strange mixture of present and future, of digging my heels in for another round, and intentionally preparing to depart. Next year, I have accepted a position as a middle school English Language Arts teacher in a community that I have had the privilege of working in for the past year. The majority of my students are bilingual or English Language Learners, and once again, HDS has offered me the unique capacity to direct my educational experience toward my vocational ends. My class at the Education School is focused on working with bilingual learners, and my course through the Extension School, “Methods in Religious Studies and Education”, will be the capstone in an initiative at HDS to train future teachers and educators to integrate religious studies into K-12 curriculum.
Yet my explicit preparation for post-Divinity School life does not supersede the reality that that Monday was representative of all of things I have come to love about my Divinity School education—coursework I am passionate about, professional opportunities I can grow from, and invaluable time to engage with the professors, friends, colleagues, and mentors who have formed the relational center of my life for the past three years. One such professor, Charles Hallisey, stated once in a lecture on Buddhist scripture that in order to take one step forward in our understanding of a text, we often have to take two steps back. I think it was inevitable on that Monday, looking out upon my final semester at HDS, that I was drawn backwards into the past. I was pulled to remember the “me” who existed before HDS. Yet, the first thing I recalled was not my initial encounter with HDS as an accepted student, but my first encounter with an HDS alumnus before I had even decided to apply.
I was in Sri Lanka, working as a Program Assistant for an American study abroad program, and my supervisor was Stephen Jenkins, a former student at HDS. I remember saying to him in the lobby of a restaurant as we waited to eat that the “problem” was I didn’t know what I wanted. Steve considered my query for a moment before asking me the single, most significant question I have ever been asked: “Is it possible that a more helpful question than ‘what do you want’ is ‘who do you want to serve?’” I applied to HDS a month later, walked onto campus for the first time the next fall, and have never stopped asking myself that question.
My conversation with Steve was my first window into this institution. It was a brief taste of the types of questions an HDS education can teach you to ask, and a testament to the powerful ways in which the HDS community extends beyond these walls. As I look back upon that moment, I recognize that Steve was, quite unknowingly, my first HDS teacher. I have had many here: Emily Click and Laura Tuach who taught me how to theologically reflect and to claim my vocation; Diane Moore who taught me that how we engage each other in public discourse matters; Charles Hallisey who taught me that hope, the cultivation of the perspective that the world can be different tomorrow than it was today, is a fundamental element of education; Susan Lawler who taught me that conquering the professional world is often more about giving then getting; and my peers, friends, and colleagues who taught me more through their own passionate commitment to academic and ministerial pursuits than I will ever be able to put into words.
There are many more. There is no end to the teachers I have met here, and no possible way to imagine the extent to which they have changed my life and will continue to do so long after I graduate. HDS may be in the business of bringing together a community of learners, but it simultaneously succeeds in bringing together a community of teachers. As I face the finale (maybe!) of my formal education, and embark on a new adventure as a teacher, I go with the knowledge that I have some incredible, and enduring, examples to live up to.