In college, I encountered some lines from Gregory Wolfe about the vocation of the artist. As someone who had been carrying the desire to write and the desire to make this writing my life work, the words were perfect.
“Vocation,” Greg wrote, “is a mysterious thing. It seems to come to us both from without — as a call from someone or something — and from within, as an inexplicable compulsion.”
That made sense to me. The need to write was something that was both liberating and compelling, an irresistible force that promised freedom, discovery, truth about my life and my seeking. Something that I could hear, and obey, but that also came from deep within myself, a hunger that set my hand on the page.
It still makes sense, as I think about my writing life, and about the long slow project of my memoir. But it also makes sense in other ways, in another facet of my life that is marked by a bewildering mixture of that same compulsion and desire.
I am a teacher. And that fact fills me, daily, with excitement and dread, energy and fear.
There are many in this community who write about teaching, and many readers who are teachers (in various places) themselves. Part of our trade in seeking beauty together is to share it with others, and for me, that sharing takes me to a small Christian college in West Michigan, where I teach composition and various kinds of writing.
I’m lucky. At twenty-seven, I’ve gotten to teach courses in creative writing, spiritual writing, theological aesthetics, spiritual reading. It gives me real, palpable joy to teach these courses, to discover students’ stories alongside them, to piece through the words of Shakespeare, Bret Lott, Luci Shaw.
Last week, I listened to a student’s poem about his Mountain Dew bottle and nearly fell over in my excitement. To watch his vision deepen, his own play with word and image surprise his suspicious heart, keeps me hungry for more.
There are days where the work makes sense, where, even if my students struggle, I know that they are onto something good. That I’m leading them through clear waters.
And then there are the other days — the unanswered e-mails, the stacks of grading left undone, the ways my words trip over themselves after five hours of sleep. The hourly reminders of how weak my knowledge is, how often I leave my students glazed, irked, dissatisfied.
It’s not just that I struggle when my students don’t get it. Or when I feel less than proud of my abilities. I struggle with teaching because in that compulsion to teach, something else is exposed. Some raw nerve gets peeled back, and I am left with no clear explanation for why e-mails go unanswered, why the rhythms of this teaching life weigh me with more anxiety than I can recount or explain or correct.
I think it is because vocation, as it affirms gift and longing, also strips us, sloughs the pride and naivety that we carry right off us. And the ways that vocation — through art, through teaching, through whatever else we do — lays us low is guided by a love that is bent on raising us up, on, as St. Ireneus says, making us “fully alive.”
If I am compelled to teach because I long to see my students transfigured, then the act of teaching itself will also, in some way, transfigure me. This vocation, if I follow it, will burn out the impurities of heart and soul so that I may, however faintly, carry glory.
I knew that I wanted to teach in high school, when I realized that, in the midst of my family turmoil and my own fragile search for beauty and meaning, teachers were my shepherds. There was Mort Castle, the Columbia College professor who led writing workshops once a month at my high school, who read my first short story and said, “This is for you, kid. This is for you.”
Then there was Michael Vander Weele, who introduced me to Augustine and George Herbert, who led a trip to Greece where we kept travel journals, visited monasteries, drank cheap retsina in a family pub below Mount Olympus. Who pulled me aside my freshman year and said, “You could be a college professor, Allison.”
And it was Aron Reppmann who shared Plato with me, who taught me how to pray the daily office. It was Aron Reppmann who first said, “Allison, your family is a bunch of alcoholics. And you need to go to counseling. When will you set up an appointment?”
I find myself mimicking these men’s motions as I teach. In my assignments and my lectures, I hear all three of them, and others, shaping the words I give, the ways I lead students through the texts and questions that bind us.
These men led me, as it were, to the mountaintop. If I imitate them, it is because I cannot help it, because the call to see what they see, and to long for beauty and wholeness with them, is irresistible. Joyful. Terrifying.
On my desk, I have a stack of poetry imitations, paper topics, and responses to King Lear. It will be a long night for me, and for us, in the tasks that compel us.
In those tasks, may we listen for what calls us. May we stand aright and in good fear; may we behold the love that calls us.
Allison Backous is a writer and teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is the creative writing editor for The Other Journal.