Although every week is a work week for my department, today marks the beginning of what feels like a much-needed, and much-anticipated, break. Classes are canceled, calendars are less cluttered, and the roller coaster offers an opportunity to breathe.
I love the academic calendar. For someone who simultaneously craves routine and can’t stand monotony, the academic calendar provides the perfect blend of predictability and variety. I love the summer of planning and anticipation, the flurry of the fall semester, the joy of the holiday breaks, and the spring semester sprint toward the finish line of commencement.
But I especially need a break right now.
One year ago, while the power was out in Malibu post-fire, I set aside the breathing mask and trusted my laptop battery in the dark of my office for a job interview. Life has not slowed down for a minute since.
I am so excited that our daughters are visiting our new Nashville home this week, and you’ll surely hear more about that later. But this morning, I am headed to the office with a smile. I don’t need a break to rest. Instead, I simply need time away from the frenzy of meetings and events, with time and space to think, to process, to clear the old mind so that I can dream again.
I give thanks for that today, three days ahead of schedule.
I have been a Falcon and a Ram, a Bison and a Razorback, a Greyhound and a Shark, a Golden Eagle and a Redhawk, a Wave and now a Bison again—all the while rooting for Cardinals and Cowboys, and once upon a time, a patriotic team called the 76ers.
Sports mascots are weird. There, I said it. Weird, but obviously a big deal. Can grown human beings wearing ridiculous costumes really be considered serious business? Well, an $18 million Mascot Hall of Fame opened earlier this year in Whiting, Indiana. Let that one sink in.
Weird, yes, but it isn’t that I don’t feel a close kinship to mascots, with my closet as my witness. In fact, at the Greene County Quiz Bowl competition during my senior year of high school, I wowed the crowd with a remarkable depth of sports mascot knowledge (while my teammate, Trevor, answered all the academic questions). I do love me some mascots. But they’re weird.
So now I am a Bison. Thanks to the National Bison Legacy Act signed into law by President Obama in 2016, the American Bison is now our “national mammal.” Because it is specifically mine now at Lipscomb University, I am suddenly more interested in this lumbering beast. The American bison is described as “broad and muscular with shaggy coats of long hair.” This is going to be a stretch for me. However, “Bison temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason.” That sounds much more interesting!
My friend, Tom, shared a link recently of four bison being released back into Badlands National Park. As a new and proud Bison, this actually touched my heart. I’m not sure you will care if you are an Anteater or Banana Slug or Horned Frog. But I suddenly do.
Mascots are surely weird, but maybe even mascots can teach us how to care for something beyond our individual selves. If so, may their kind increase.
Dad (21 years old)
In 1975 nobody learned to read in kindergarten. Reading was a first-grade subject then, and kindergarten was for learning how to make friends and drink milk out of cardboard cartons. But somehow I could read before starting kindergarten. I remember sitting on my sister’s lap at age four and reading a Cookie Monster book from start to finish. Sandy tossed me off her lap and ran away yelling, “Mom! Al just read a book!” My earliest memory is being described as smart.
I was a hit in kindergarten. We would watch Sesame Street in the classroom, and when the part of the show arrived where a word would magically come together my classmates would sit breathlessly until I proclaimed it aloud as if royalty making a grand decree. “The word is…CHICKEN!” And the class would cheer. Heady stuff for a five-year-old kid.
My “smarts” had an obvious genetic component since both mom and dad were intelligent, although dad had some special Rainman-like quality when it came to mathematics, something I apparently inherited to a lesser but notable degree. Dad was also a high school dropout.
Dad studied Latin in high school in Missouri in the 1930s and hoped to be a physician. Without his knowledge, his principal worked to secure him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy sometime around 1937, but Dad turned it down since it was the Great Depression and he was the oldest child. He then dropped out of high school to work.
Pearl Harbor was bombed the day after Dad’s twenty-first birthday. He had heard horror stories of trench warfare from old men in the “Great War” and was enamored with the Navy anyway, so he chose to enlist. Dad took a train from Union Station in St. Louis to Chicago for processing and did so well on a particular test that the Navy wanted him in an electrician school that was starting right away in San Francisco, so he boarded another train and left for war. He was gone for four years, but thankfully for many of us, he was among those who did come home.
Dad served on a variety of battleships and carriers in the Pacific Theater, and I regret never recording which ones since I believe his records were among 16-18 million files destroyed in a tragic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in July 1973 (although I haven’t given up hope yet). What I do remember is that he served in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and the subject of current feature film at the box office—a movie I obviously have to see.
Today is Veterans Day. And if you can’t tell, I am thinking about Dad. I suspect many of you have someone to think about, too.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged battle of midway, family, fathers, great depression, high school dropout, kindergarten, naval academy, navy, pearl harbor, sesame street, sons, veterans, veterans day, war in the pacific, world war two
In January, while I prepared for a job interview in Nashville, then Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made national news by commuting the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown. In the ensuing media frenzy I learned that Ms. Brown graduated from Lipscomb University while in prison through Lipscomb’s unique LIFE Program. That basically describes everything I knew about the LIFE Program until last week.
However, I arrived at Lipscomb enamored with Dr. Richard Goode, having no idea that he founded the LIFE Program back in 2007. All I knew was that Dr. Goode had the good fortune of spending time with iconoclast, Reverend Will D. Campbell, and had written a couple of my all-time favorite books with and about Campbell. I simply wanted to meet Dr. Goode, so you can imagine my surprise when he emailed one day asking to drop by and get my advice about a course he was teaching. My advice? Ridiculous, but I could not resist the chance for a one-on-one with Dr. Goode.
We met and discussed his History & Politics of Reconciliation course, and when I mentioned a particular documentary that was new to him, he asked if I would come to the Tennessee Prison for Women (“TPW”) to show the documentary and lead a discussion.
Despite the recent national attention, the LIFE Program is the best-kept secret at Lipscomb. Get this: traditional Lipscomb students (“outside students”) can drive to TPW and take some of their classes inside the prison alongside “inside students.” It is brilliant and beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen.
Last Wednesday I rode with Dr. Goode to TPW, the primary correctional facility for women in Tennessee that houses over seven hundred women, including any inmate on death row. Some parts of the evening were simultaneously expected and unforgettable: the glistening razor wire; the careful pat down; the explosive sound of the door locks; the expanse of the prison yard; the heartbreaking and inspiring stories of the inside students; the fascinating conversation with Dr. Goode.
But what I did not expect—and what in my opinion is the breathtaking genius of the LIFE Program—is the relationships between the inside and outside students. I was astonished to witness the authentic and comfortable friendships that had developed in that classroom.
I am scheduled to attend the Lipscomb graduation for inside students just over a month from now. One of the anticipated graduates is a student in the class I taught last Wednesday, and I learned that she was recently granted parole. After so many years behind bars she had one request. Can you guess? She wants to stay in prison long enough to get to walk in graduation.
This all gives “LIFE in prison” an entirely new meaning.
[For more information (including videos) on Lipscomb’s LIFE Program, click HERE.]