August 13, 2020 |Next week many of us will have a conversation we've had many times before: the welcome-to-the-first-day-of-class talk.
Yet we'll deliver it differently this year, won't we? Rather than walking around the classroom, we'll stand (or sit) still. We'll address students arranged before us in neat rows--at desks six feet apart, in game-show grids on our screens, or in some previously unimagined combination of both.
And what should we say to them? How might we address whatever mix of nervous excitement and anxious uncertainty they (like many of us) may be feeling?
I intend to begin by talking about stories.
First I'll describe stories that we'll read together in my class on the Black Death, first-hand accounts from that terrifying pandemic. Like the words of Pepo, a merchant of Florence whose 14th-century notebook survives in Chicago's Newberry Library.
And then I'll remind my students what's true about stories.
We each write our own.
We don't get to choose all the story's elements. The setting, the plot-lines, many of the characters--those we cannot always script. That's clear enough to them already. No one asked to attend college during a pandemic.
What else about our stories? We never know what comes next.
This much, however, I will assure them: whatever happens, the days and weeks ahead will feature prominently in the life stories they are writing. Their intense and sometimes disorienting experiences will mark them. Deep emotions, daunting challenges, burdensome duties: all these and more will shape them.
And then I will predict: many years from now, when they stop to re-read the stories they wrote at Xavier, many will find reasons to give thanks. For the intense friendships born of shared risks and shared responsibilities. For the character they forged by meeting challenges well, together. For the transformative experiences that these extraordinary days presented them.
And finally I will promise them: that as they write their stories in the weeks ahead, I--and we, the Xavier community--will be with them. We will support, encourage, and push them forward. And we will write them into our own stories as well.