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.”
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
Here in Bozeman of late, one might lose sight of (or even forget for a moment) the beautiful scenery surrounding our fair Verona due to the smoke from the wildfires to our west. Granted, smoke is better than fire, but the result (at least with regard to all things respiratory) is basically the same. As Petra Humanities teacher Thomas Banks posted on his Facebook page, “In Bozeman today we are all smokers. Solidarity.”
Solidarity, indeed. We’re all affected by the smoke – some more than others (young children, older adults, and those with asthma perhaps the most) – as we all breathe, and in doing so, we all know something’s not been quite right of late in Gallatin Valley.
This, of course, makes for the most timely of metaphors. Born into a world created good by God, ours is an atmosphere and ontology tainted by the “smoke” of original sin. Though redeemed if we are Christians, we nevertheless live not-yet-restored lives as what theologian Francis Schaeffer labeled “glorious ruins” – still glorious because we bear the image of God, yet temporarily ruined by the effects of choosing (past and present) apart from Him.
All this shrouds our human experience of what Aristotle called “the transcendentals” of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty; and yet, it does not negate their existence. The parallel is obvious: regardless of the smoke, living in Bozeman and heading northeast of town will run us into the Bridgers because, well, there they are, and have been since God created them. Likewise, living in this world – fallen as it is – will run us into God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, because there they are, remnants of His creation and wonderfully incarnated in the person of Jesus the Christ.
So how do we see and discover – yea, even experience! – what is there? The answer is less dependent on us than we think. For just as we can do little but pray for the westerly winds to blow smoke out of the Gallatin Valley, so, too, can we do little but pray for the Spirit of God to blow sin out of the valleys of our own hearts. Let us pray this same simple way for our children, that as they begin school at Petra in two-and-a-half weeks, God’s Spirit would blow out the smoke of sin from their hearts and grant them a clearer picture of Himself through all that they learn.
Oh, the view! May this weekend be one in which the blue, big skies of Bozeman once again meet the familiar peaks of the Bridgers. And, may this upcoming school year be one in which our students (and we as their parents) once again meet the God of all that is True, Good, and Beautiful in the world.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
Writing in his essay, “Of Education,” poet and polemicist John Milton sums up well the goal of learning:
“The end then of Learning is to repair the ruines of our first Parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the neerest by possessing our souls of true vertue,
which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.”
Repairing the ruins; regaining to know God right – and then loving, imitating, and being like Him because we know Him; possessing souls of true virtue; being united to faith and thereby experiencing the highest of perfections. This is what true learning looks like…and what classical and Christian education is!
Lofty goals, to be sure, yet ones we trust, by God’s grace, that our faculty and families will embrace and imbibe in this, our 20th academic year of Petra Academy. Toward that end, I would like to invite you to our Parent Orientation on Wednesday, September 2, from 7-9 p.m. to learn more about our shared pursuit this coming school year. Upper School students may attend Orientation as part of the program; however, please make other plans for kids 12-and-under so as to get the most from the experience.
Because the beginning of a school year can feel overwhelming, we are working on a series of “helps” – everything from hands-on Chalkable training to thinking more classically and Christianly about daily life – especially for Petra parents. We look forward to announcing these at Parent Orientation on September 2, but until then, would direct you to our list of article and book recommendations under our new Parents tab to perhaps build some enthusiasm.
We look forward to our new school year starting Tuesday, September 8th. May this year – Petra’s 20th! – be a year in which our students “regain to know God aright” in their studies, activities, and very lives. Thank you, parents, for entrusting us with the privilege of assisting you in pursuing this glorious goal.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
As you plan to join us at Petra Academy this fall, you will be part of a new chapter that God is writing in the history of our school. It will be a new year (Petra’s 20th, no less), with new faces (at least 20 of them, pushing us over 200 total students for 2015-16), and with a new Headmaster (who moved his family 20 hours to be with you in Bozeman).
A new chapter, indeed!
Whether we recognize it or not, the concept of “chapter” is an important construct, for it is how we’ve come to experience others’ stories as well as our own. Nicholas Dames, a teacher in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, writes in an article, “The Chapter: A History,” in The New Yorker,
“Books have been written or arranged in chapters for over two millennia now, although that fact has never received the attention it deserves from historians of the written word. Perhaps the sheer longevity of the concept has rendered it invisible… we simply expect chapters to be there, breaking up our reading, giving us the permission to pause or stop.”
Summer is a chapter break (a much welcomed one, at that!) and a time to pause, to stop…but not to end. God – the Author of our faith – is always authoring new chapters in our lives; in fact, without meaning to be too cliché, history is indeed His Story of the world’s redemption.