Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Searching for Meaning- Learning

Rev. Frank Dunn 
Some dates of relatively minor importance cling to me like beggar lice. When they pop up on the calendar a memory flickers in the corner of my mind. One such date is September 4. On that day, I started first grade. 

In my distant youth, country kids like me rarely went to kindergarten, let alone nursery school, playtime, mother’s morning out, and so on. We knew of none of that. The first act of separating from home and family came when I, and others like me, began the first grade. I was ready. No shopping trips to get me ready; no amassing of supplies, save for a red book satchel; no trips to the school to check it out in advance; only a trip to the Horry County Health Department, where a woman by the name of Mrs. Blizzard (rhymed with lizard, I noted) gave me my smallpox vaccination. By September 3, the scab had fallen off, signaling that I was duly prepared to start my education.

Smells of yellow liquid soap, of wax on creaky pine floors, of crayons and modeling clay, of brand new textbooks, of school bus fumes and pencil shavings flood my mind on September 4. I am back in Mrs. Butler’s class for a moment or two, my short legs dangling on the bench behind an ancient desk with a strange hole on the right side, said to be for an ink bottle. I whiff the grapes Aunt Myra has packed for me to snack on during recess. It is all strange, foreign, mysterious, thrilling.

I fell in love with school. I never grew bored or tired or frustrated with it. The second hardest thing was learning how to make and keep friends. The very hardest thing was to identify and stay out of the way of enemies—bullies, tattlers, teasers. Early successes with school, and its weekend analogue Sunday School, sealed my fortune to be a lifelong learner, thirsty for knowledge, comfortable with questions, eager to master information. 

Still being formed after all these years, I come to autumn with fresh resolve. As leaves sicken and fall in dusty streets and slanting shadows cross my walk, I feel the pull of promise as I ponder some new learning. This September it is a geology course. I have enrolled in it to learn things about this planet that I have either never pondered nor fully understood. One year it was a splash in French again. There sits on my shelf the canon of Tennessee Williams, to be read and probed and shared sometime soon.

What I know now that I did not know on September 4 six decades ago is that all learning involves the Word, the Truth that pops up in every corner of creation. The Word breathes through Nature, bleeds through tragedy, speaks through the heats of human desire and longing. There is no place where the Word is not, though the Word is often silent, waiting for my fidgety mind to settle down and listen as intently as an enchanted first-grader on the opening day of school.

Frank Dunn is the senior priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Columbia Heights.