The lights are on now at Ursuline College.
They are not the festive, colorful lights that decorate our trees, but single, individual candles in each window of the brick buildings that house our classrooms and offices, reflecting into the pond that is the visual center of our campus. They were turned on December 2nd, a day chosen deliberately to commemorate the day in 1980 when our 1965 graduate, Dorthy Kazel, was one of four women brutally murdered in El Salvador while working with the poor of that country. Her story is eloquently told in the book “In the Fullness of Life”, written by Cynthia Glavic, my colleague in English department. Her death always gives pause to me and to many of us who spend our lives with more ordinary pursuits, such as teaching calculus and statistics. Would we have the courage to follow our hearts to martyrdom?
I know that, in my case, the answer is probably “no”. I am afraid that I have become more self-centered as I have aged, less willing to go out and save the world and more drawn to the small comforts of life, such as hot chocolate and absorbing novels. Still, there is a bit of idealist in me still, and once in a while I remember that girl from college who once wanted nothing more than to leave the world a changed place. I have concluded lately that such changes will probably be accomplished not by me, but by my daughter, or her children, someday.
Or by my students.
I know of only one student that I have taught in my time here who went on to profess vows with the Ursuline Sisters, but many of the students I deal with each day make difficult decisions as they embrace their studies and life itself. I recall the student who sold her textbooks before final exams, because she needed the money to pay the rent on her apartment. And I remember the student who chose a medical college close to home so as not to severely disrupt the life of the daughter she had borne in high school. And I also remember the student who interrupted her graduate studies when she became the recipient of an organ donation. While few are following calls to work in war-torn countries, many students, in some way or another, are making life-affirming choices as they progress through their undergraduate careers. I am constantly amazed at them and their stories.
I also realize that teachers much like me taught Dorthy Kazel once, and they must have had a role in the formation of this brave woman. Just how my own teaching could influence my students to encourage them to take such radical risks for what they believe in is unclear, but I know that other teachers, some of whom are still here at Ursuline in some capacity, played a role in the nurturing of our most well-known alumna. And so, as I teach my students things like the Central Limit Theorem and definite integrals, I take a minute to realize that these students will reside in and shape a world that I may not visit. It is both humbling and inspiring.
Perhaps, in the end, my way of changing the world is to help my students grow up into the amazing people I already know they are.
The lights are on now.
I wonder how many realize what they mean.