He planted trees. Told he had had but six months or so to live, he planted trees. I wondered why he didn’t plant flowers he’d get to see them bloom. Or why not spend time in prayer and study, steeling his spirit for death? Now, over twenty years later, as I pause on my way to class, looking out the window over the tops of the lindens and ornamental pears he planted, I think I know. I think of Jeremiah planting trees, trees that would take years to bear first fruit, even as he prophesied the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and Judah…I think of Jeremiah: what extravagant faith, what outrageous hope. What a gift he left us, in these trees planted all around us and in this garden I now look out over, a garden named “Melvin Platz” in memory of Father Melvin Rupprecht.
As I think of my students waiting for me, these trees seem an obvious metaphor for the teaching vocation. Many have written about how plumbers and electricians know rather quickly turn a valve, flick a switch whether or not they have been successful, while teachers only rarely see their successes or failures, the results are so far off in time and distance. Yet we are Jeremiahs, Father Melvins, nurturing faith and hope in our hearts that the trees will mature, and so on we toil.
Perhaps a less obvious metaphor embodied in these trees, however, is that of teachers as trees. On this sunny day, I think of a note I recently received from Tim Zadai, class of ’68. In it, Tim recalled how disappointed he was with the grade I had given him on his first essay in freshman writing. Yet he felt encouraged to do better in my course, encouragement that he told me led him to continue working to improve his writing at Saint Vincent and later in both graduate school and career. That’s the “student-as-tree” metaphor, but I am thinking more about what Tim included with his note a photocopy of that first essay, an essay written for the first class I taught at Saint Vincent. So Tim’s essay was the first I ever assigned, and among the first I ever corrected and graded. I watch white clouds light the sky behind Kennedy Hall and recall with a wry smile the folded photocopy Tim sent, its few sparse and fussy grammatical corrections, its cursory final comment, its overconfidently written C minus, and see it now as a measure of my growth as a teacher, for I find in it (my “freshman essay”too) an assignment that I would not think of giving to freshman students today, corrections and comments I would not make today, and the absence of comments I should have made. We’ve grown together here, these trees and I, students and colleagues, and Penny and Ryan, my family.
In the fall of 1990, when I was lucky enough to be awarded a national bronze medal in the CASE/Carnegie Foundation’s 1989 Professor of the Year program, I told Brother Norman, College Provost, that I felt I would not have received such an award had I been a teacher at a college other than Saint Vincent. I arrived at Saint Vincent a lapsed Methodist at a time of religious and spiritual ferment on campus right after the Second Vatican Council. Saint Vincent turned out to be important in the formation of my Christian faith. A little later, students and faculty concerned about social justice led me to make a commitment to the world’s hungry people: I’ve done anti-hunger work with government, secular, and ecumenical agencies and with Redstone Presbytery for almost twenty years now, and in a sabbatical year in 1980-81 worked as Hunger-Action Enabler for the Synod of the Trinity (Presbyterian Church USA). These gifts of the college were pivotal to my career.
Saint Vincent also gave me the encouragement and the means not simply to teach students, but to learn from them too. When Father Maynard, then college President, rehired me for my second year, he gave as his most important reason that I “frequently had been observed talking with students outside of class” how telling of priorities that shaped me here. Bill Snyder,’73, an English department colleague, has named the characteristic mode of teaching at Saint Vincent “accompaniment” faculty here accompany students in learning. I think that that accompaniment is the true Benedictine character of Saint Vincent.
Our alumni and alumnae have achieved remarkable things in life, many of them beyond all that seemed possible when they were students. Ask most from the forties and fifties about how that happened, and they will tell you that a monk came to awaken them before class when they were freshmen, or worked extra hours to tutor them, or did something special to help them through a crisis gave what our college bulletin used to call a “personalized education.” Ask later alums, and they’ll tell you the same story, naming with real warmth both monks and lay faculty who gave them time, caring, and concern far beyond the required.
Finally, I think these trees, as well as Father Melvin’s planting them, are a metaphor for Saint Vincent itself. Another element of the Benedictine character of the place is its slowness to change. Ten years after graduating from college, I retuned to my alma mater to find it changed not only its buildings and campus, but the very essence of the college. I doubt that most who return to Saint Vincent feel that way. Change takes its good old time here, and some changes never happen for example, in the sixties, when almost all colleges, even Harvard, were abandoning required liberal arts courses, our faculty added courses to our liberal arts core curriculum. Our slow evolution at times is frustrating to administration, faculty, and students alike, but also it is a conserving force, like the slow growth of trees which gives them long life. I look out over Father Melvin’s trees, remembering students and colleagues now departed, and think the trees might symbolize something important about us: our history is less important than our heritage, a living tradition of extravagant faith and outrageous hope.
Now I’m ready for class, eager even after all these years: I’m sure the students will be ready for me, too. It’s early April: the seniors are restless; the trees in Melvin Platz grow upward toward the light, their branches spiked with buds about to break into leaf yet another year.
Ronald E. Tranquilla
From Saint Vincent: A Benedictine Place; Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B., editor; Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, 1995