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Soundings: A faculty reflection

May 22, 2012

Swan Song VII—The Class at Highland

Today, in two vans, I’m taking 23 writing students to a ghost town 10 miles west of Sioux Center.

What’s left on a rise in the earth is a couple of grassy acres surrounded by pine trees, otherwise rare as hen’s teeth on the edge of the plains. Inside stand a couple dozen grave sites and a remarkable indentation in the earth, the shadowy outline of a church so tiny that I can hardly get all 23 kids inside. I’ve taken classes out there for 15 years. We’re going again this morning, for the last time.

There’s nothing flat about the plains. We have no mountains, no escarpments, no canyons—except maybe what you can find tucked away in the Black Hills. To some, the place may seem altogether featureless, but it’s not. The nearly boundless expanse of the plains tends, almost shamelessly, to feature anything that sits or stands upon it, like the old iconic windmills. The literature of the homesteading era often includes stories of madness, people losing it all in the sheer emptiness, nowhere to hide.

The best adjective may be undulating—a sweet word full of soft, rolling vowels no less gentle than its consonants, a word that ends in a song. But I may be romanticizing; there really is nothing cushy about where we live. While a sunset can spread a masterful palette of colors out over what seems half the earth and more open sky than you can imagine, the plains are not for aesthetes.

There’s so much prairie, so much not to see, that I’ve loved taking my writing classes here to make sure they don’t miss it. What I love about old Highland is its lofty position on the landscape: up a knoll, at the corner of two dissecting gravel roads that fall away from the intersection like unfurling ribbons of dust. To the west sits the quintessential American vision—endless waves of rolling land flowing into a horizon often indistinguishable from the heavens.

None of my students is thrilled to be there. The Iowa kids have grown up on the prairie; they’d just as soon leave. West-coast kids haven’t come to school here because they lusted for some Great Plains experience. As much as they enjoy getting out of the classroom, they harbor serious concerns about the sanity of the prof when he parks the van at the cemetery and says, “This is the place.”

“Here we are,” I say. “Find a place to sit and fill up some paper.” They stand poised between the gravestones of a long-gone, slivery fragment of human civilization and the liquid dreaminess of endless prairie landscape west, and the place takes their breath away. The place is so empty it’s eerie, so expansive it diminishes them.

That’s when they really “see” the world they inhabit. 

The older I get, the more I believe in the sheer necessity of stunning moments of bewonderment. We can argue about the goals of a Christian education—a system I’ve forever been a part of—but for me, having students stop and see the endless expanse of prairie is the closest I can come to teaching what should be one of Christian education’s most dedicated requirements—sheer awe. I want them simply to look, to see, and to feel with their pens.

I don’t have to tell them to work. You don’t need a mountain top for a spiritual experience. A prairie will do.

I want my students to see God’s own immensity in the expansive landscape. I want them to feel small in the wide, wide world he’s given us just a mile or two down the road. I want them to see and to smile, to listen to the whispers of the Holy Ghost. Just for a moment, I want them to be still and to know that he is God.        

This morning we go again. The temps will be great, the morning a blessing. This will be the last time for them.

But not for me.  


James C. Schaap wrote several "Swan Songs" in his blog this year, reflecting on his career as a professor.

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