Tuesday, January 31, 2017

John Walker and John Hodges

Professor Walker
I've been trying to tell my kids about Professor Walker.

Mr. Hodges
As it turns out, I couldn't without also talking about Mr. Hodges.
Perhaps it's because I named a son after the two of them (using each of their middle names, since I figured there were enough Johns in the world already), but in my life, they were two sides of the same coin. I had a number of other wonderful professors in college: brilliant, godly, and loving. Dr. Allman, Dr. Hugh, Professor Graham, Dr. Brian, Dr. Clap, and Dr. Callis all come to mind immediately, and if I took time to think I could come up with others, but this post is about Mr. Hodges, who celebrated his birthday was yesterday, and Professor Walker, who died yesterday.

(It may seem a bit awkward to read a eulogy and a toast at the same time. I write it because I'm tired of writing to others what I should have said to my friends while they were still alive, but mostly because, like I said, they are together in my heart.)

There were a lot of similarities between Professor Walker and Mr. Hodges. They both taught Humanities at Crichton College while I attended there. Professor Walker taught English. Mr. Hodges taught Art and Culture. Several classes they taught together. Mr. Hodges also led the theater department, such as it was, and without an actual "department" he (with others) pulled off some really amazing shows.

I remember him demonstrating a particular dance move that some of us in Godspell were having difficulty with. "Now keep in mind, I'm not a dancer!" he warned....and then off he went, singing, kicking his legs and waving his hands just right, putting us all to shame.

Professor Walker was in a wheelchair, a quadriplegic since the age of 15 (I think it was 15). He used to be a football player, an athlete, but his mind wasn't damaged when he dove into that creek. The first time I saw him, though, I was surprised....stupid little 17 year old me never thought of a person in a wheelchair being a college professor. Plus he looked young. He was 34.

I have some of the papers I wrote for Professor Walker in my file cabinet still.
His notes were hard to read. His numb hands had difficulty holding and writing with a pen or pencil. I remember going by his office once to ask him what he had written on my paper. I felt so bad. He was happy to see me, he was happy to talk, and explain, and discuss...I went by his office a lot after that. I could talk about anything. He'd listen and answer. Both in his classes and in his office, we could explore a passage or poem or idea together, and he never left me behind or made me feel like he was just explaining TO me. Long before I met him I loved to read (I remember him telling me once that he thought I may have read more books than he had) but he opened my eyes to depths and heights that I had never seen in what I read. He taught me to really understand, and as a result, to love both what I read and the author. Milton, Spencer, Donne...he made me see them as living, vibrant, and relevant. I still sometimes remember a class or read a poem and a new understanding will occur to me.

I got better at reading his writing.

My first class with him (English 101) was amazing and new and I aced it. My first paper in his English 102 got a C. I couldn't understand. The note at the end said: "You can do better." He graded me on my own personal curve; my average work was never good enough for him. So I got better, but I didn't have to agree with him either. I next wrote a research paper "proving" him wrong: "A Walk through the Woods on a Snowy Evening" was NOT actually about death. He laughed at me. He gave me an "A". And then we talked about it for about two hours, I think...I was late for my next class. He didn't change my mind; he didn't try to. He nurtured it and gave it time to grow. I'm a lot older now, twice the age I was, two years older than he was. Still young, I insist, but I'm old enough to see the death in that poem now. Even if that's not what Frost was thinking of.

For Mr. Hodges, I mostly have pictures. Some of the pictures are of famous paintings/buildings he taught me to appreciate, some are of him with the casts of different plays. If Professor Walker was a gardener, Mr. Hodges was a shepherd. Oh, the places he led us! New thoughts and new places, new ways of seeing things and new reasons to see them! Who knew that art, whether through language, movement, paint, rock, or sound was so important! I didn't. Mr. Hodges showed me.

Or us, rather....both of them taught excellent classes and I was blessed to spend time one on one with each of them. But I mostly remember my private talks with Professor Walker, and my best memories of Mr. Hodges are in groups. Everyone wanted to be around Mr. Hodges. I'm pretty sure he had to lock his office door and hide under his desk to get alone time. He exuded life and warmth. Where Professor Walker was quietly, gently intense, Mr. Hodges was vibrantly passionate.

His passion was catching, and what he was passionate for (and still is) was God and Art and how they were inseparable. He taught us how art influenced culture and vice versa and how it all pointed to God. He taught us that being an artist was being a little god, and those who love the true God should take the work very seriously. He showed us how all beauty, all truth, comes from God, and that all art is an attempt to show Him. I couldn't do my average in his class either. He called better out of me, out of everyone around him, and he taught us how our creative works can and should point to God, even if and especially when God was not explicit in them. He taught us that Notre Dame was not a waste of time and effort and why it wasn't. He taught us to listen to great music as a conversation with the composer. One memorable lesson was when he challenged us to go a full week (or was it two) without consuming any media. No music, no tv. This was before the internet and facebook. I  learned a lot about myself that week. Every so often I try the experiment again. I fail every time in completing the challenge, but it's worth it to keep trying.

I was involved in four plays he directed at college. Two I was on stage, two I was back stage. Those memories remain among the very best of my life, right up with the birth of my children. Through those plays, he taught us a lot more than our lines and blocking. None of the plays were explicitly Christian (well, even Godspell wasn't meant to be!), but he showed us Christ in them, and then showed us how to show others. He taught us respect for others work and time. He taught us the old adage "There are no small parts only small actors," and he made us believe it. He taught us to strive for perfection before the show and showed us how to enjoy the "good enough" we always ended up with. He taught us to have fun while we worked and learned. He taught us that to be able to recognize evil we had to know Good. He taught us that one particularly difficult bit of choreography in "O Bless the Lord My Soul." Mr. Hodges would make a person feel special and inspired them to prove it.

I remember him mostly with lots of people around, but I also remember he made me feel special, myself as an individual. And the fact that he did the same for dozens I know of and more doesn't take away from that feeling, either.

I can never watch a movie, or tv show, or listen to a song on the radio without thinking about what it means, what the creator is trying to say, and the different methods they are using to say it. Professor Walker did that with literature for me, Mr. Hodges did that with art and media. Honestly, there is a lot of overlap there...I'm making firmer categories than there actually were. Forgive me, it's the best I can do right now.

Mr. Hodges led, with other professors help (including Professor Walker's) a monthly Film Series. We'd watch a movie, old (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), new (The Matrix), humorous (An Ideal Husband, O Brother Where Art Thou?), or dark (Bladerunner), even some independant films (Spitfire Grill). All of those and the others are among my favorite movies now because of the way I understand them after our discussions. Some of them for more than just that reason, of course...I named a son after a character in one of those movies. Regardless, the way I consume my entertainment, my news, the way I think of the ideas around me, these meetings and Mr. Hodges's classes taught me. No blind singing with the lyrics or quiescently absorbing the message of a show! More than once, no, frequently, I am thankful for this teaching. I believe it has both enriched my life and protected my soul. I am attempting to pass it on to my children.

Professor Walker changed my life in different ways. He changed the way I looked at other people, not just people in wheelchairs and in Econoline vans but anyone different from me. He taught me to see the beauty and the truth in the suffering people, in the uglier and harder parts of life. He saw God in everyone and gave me just a glimpse of how to do it. One quote from him in particular that changed me, changed me immediately, and I still think of it and remind myself, and my kids know this quote:

"Honesty without courtesy is brutality."

As an immature, self-centered young adult who prided herself on her bluntness (but sadly, not her honesty) that quote shook me, and over time drastically changed my idea of who I wanted to be. His next sentence changed the way I saw God, not just by the words but by the little choke in his voice, his tone, when he said it,

"God does not treat us that way."

For the first time, maybe, I really saw God as kind, and not just as a harshly loving judge. A paralyzed man in a wheelchair taught me that.

Before I met Prof. Walker, I thought I would rather be dead than be paralyzed. After I knew him, my view changed so much that I told my friend that I would welcome a wheelchair if it would teach me to be like him. The naive enthusiasm of the immortal youth, yes, but while I still shrink from suffering as much as possible, when it comes, I think I'm a little braver through it because of him.

Both men showed me how to love. Not with warm fuzzies or sweet nothings, but with the action of caring and loving everyone around them. You couldn't spend time with them without wanting more, not because they were brilliant (well, not just that) but because you could tell they cared. That you mattered to them, and they were loving you the best they could by teaching you about God in the ways they knew Him best.

I'm a poor student, but my whole life I've been trying to learn what those two taught. It is a good use of my life.

There is a lot more in my heart about these two men, more I learned from them, but I lack the time to find the words right now. Before I end, I do want to say that much of what I learned was taught, not just by them, but also by the other professors and staff of Crichton college and the enviroment and atmosphere they created. It was not a perfect place as no place on this earth is, but for myself it was a place of growth and love and learning. I am always regretful of how I underappreciated moments while in them, but I am learning to appreciate them in hindsight and be thankful for that.


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