by Sam Koenen, Academic Dean
One evening this summer, I sat on my front porch and began a short volume of poetry by Wendell Berry. The first poem was only three lines long, but its powerful image forced me to stop reading and to think about its implications.
Though this poem consists of a single image, it contains many wise lessons that all of us—teachers, students, and parents—can seek to apply as the new school year approaches.
Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.”
The poem’s single metaphor is an exhortation for us to work as the snow works. By contemplating what it means for snow to “work”, we can draw four lessons from Berry’s exhortation.
1) Work with consistency. Berry’s snow falls quietly, without rushing and without anxiety. Its consistent, step-by-step efforts eventually blanket the landscape completely. This time of year, it is common for students to start worrying about the next nine months of books and papers, math problems and science labs, projects and deadlines—and for some, the looming horror of the junior thesis.
Teachers often experience a similar anxiety, wondering how they will be able to prep all the assignments their students are worrying about, as well as attend sports games, teacher training meetings, be home with their families, and serve in their churches—all at the same time.
Berry’s poem encourages us to remember the wisdom of consistency. The nine months’ of work we are worrying about comes to us a single day at a time. When we focus on the work we have today, our work isn’t so overwhelming and our anxiety settles down. The snow doesn’t spend time fretting about the amount of ground it has to cover in complete and precise detail. It just starts working flake-by-flake, and eventually it completes its task.
2) Work with contentment. The snow accepts the landscape it’s been given. It doesn’t complain about the challenging sharp corners and vertical surfaces it will struggle to cover. The snow simply does the best it can with what it has in the time it has been given.
Several times this year, both students and teachers will be given assignments that tax them, assignments full of sharp corners. Instead of wasting time in worry or complaint, let us commit now in the ease of summer to simply knuckle down and do the work we’ve been given. Let us trust that as we work (and pray about our work), we will find all the resources, energy, and wits we need to complete our work well. Let us commit now simply to do our best with what we have and trust God to provide what we lack.
3) Work with charity. The snow also teaches us to be utterly charitable in our work. Snow covers everything and leaves nothing out. It is considerate of every part of the landscape. The snow also works in a way that blesses others. It gains nothing from its work, but creates beauty and comfort in the emptiness of winter.
It is easy to forget that our work should always be marked with charity. All true Christian endeavors seek both to glorify God and to bless our neighbor. As the first day of school approaches, let us pray that God will fill us with love for each other, so that as we write lesson plans or papers, as we hear lessons or give them, as we discuss and learn and teach and spend our days together in Petra’s hallways, all our work will bless those around us—leaving nothing and no one out.
4) Work with hope. Finally, the snow teaches us to labor in the faith that our efforts will not be in vain. The snow of winter provides the ground water needed for the plants of spring. But it never sees the fruits of its labor. It has no immediate reward, no instant gratification for its work. In fact, the snow has passed away by the time its work comes to fruition.
So it often is with schoolwork, especially at a classical, Christian school. Mid-year, students are tempted to ask, “What’s the point? Where’s the payoff for all my blood, toil, tears, and sweat?” They don’t see an immediate purpose to the work they are doing (aside from the ability to quote Churchill in their angst). But the reason the payoff isn’t visible is because they aren’t looking far enough down the road. Growth in an oak tree can be measured only over many years. And it takes a long series of faithful, patient waterings to produce this growth.
When students look for an immediate payoff, they have forgotten that they are very much like trees (Ps. 1), and the work their teachers have given is water for their roots and sunlight for their leaves. Through the grace of God, their Petra education is growing their souls, nourishing their hearts, and fertilizing the soil of their roots so their thinking can go deep.
When we—students, parents, and teachers—begin to question the point of our work at Petra this year (as will inevitably happen), let us remember that we all labor in the dawn of everlasting results.
And remembering this, let us turn and begin our work again, “quietly, quietly, leaving nothing out.”