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Why “Human School”?

A version of this essay was published in the ACPE Newsletter on August 24, 2020.

Human School

As the end of my year-long Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency draws near, I reflect upon a multitude of profound experiences. I’ve affectionately called this CPE residency “Human School” because it is an education on the experience of being human. I’ve had a course load that includes such classes as Grief and Loss 101, Adapting and Adjusting, Managing Complicated Family Relationships, Emotional Responses to Physical Limitations, and, my favorite, “What Now?”: Living Your Best Life from Your Recliner. I did some additional required reading. While truly informative, I would not recommend Humiliation in the Workplace, Witnessing Chronic Pain, or Loving Someone Who Can’t Remember You: A Loved One’s Guide to Alzheimer’s. We don’t always get to choose our courseload or our professors, but I have received a remarkable education this past year. In fact, I attended a portion of a time-limited seminar called Emotional Regulation in a World Pandemic. There were also some interesting guest lectures I had the chance to sit in on, like Reckoning with Your Whiteness (Geriatric Edition).

Despite the enormous amount of learning that my year of Human School entailed, I am not prepared to graduate. To begin with, Human School didn’t start last August when I began my residency. Human School began when I was born, and it won’t really end until I die (or no longer recognize myself, a sad reality that –if there is anything this year has taught me– could happen). As I age, I realize that there are increasingly complicated and challenging classes. The irony is that I wouldn’t go back to take the easier classes even if I could because they were challenging in their own, unique, cringe-worthy ways. Mistakes were made, as they say. In Human School, I will continue to learn and relearn. With the Covid-19-response crisis, I’m on my 23rd retake of the ‘weed out’ class, Intro to Patience.

How can I summarize a year of such rich learning?

Allow me to share an experience I had on Thursday, July 23, 2020.

*****

It was a regular day as a Chaplain in the land of senior care. A storytelling program was on the schedule, but no one had signed up. A staff person suggested that she could simply cancel the program and erase the event from the whiteboard. 

Oh well, I thought to myself. There’s no other pressing need. I can see if anyone shows up. I intended to proceed as usual to the location of the program.

And they did show up. At 2 o’clock, there were four of us, three women and one man. We were each seated 6 feet apart, wearing our masks. Two had walkers, one had dementia, and then there was me. We were seated in a unutilized dining area, and our chairs were arranged in a squarish circle.

As a courtesy, I checked in with participants and learned who would share a story. Two identified themselves as storytellers, and another said she’d be a listener. The man who brought a story said that he would go second and told us that he might be long-winded and would use “whatever amount of time” the group would be willing to grant him.

The woman storyteller began to share her story. She had items to show us. In her hands, she possessed beautiful Native American crafts that were made from actual porcupine quills. I walked around the space with the items so each participant could get a better look, and the man declined and said, “I don’t need to touch it.”

Of course, I thought. It suddenly seemed obvious to me. When we’re all advised to use extreme caution and avoid shaking hands, to handle items is unwise. That being said, I’m forty-three-years-old and I’ve never seen earrings made from porcupine quills, so I continued touching these items with fascination. This woman shared that she had long been a part of various Native American craft groups, drumming circles and pow wows. She had been invited to participate by a community of Native Americans that embraced her and her family. 

After she’d ended, the only other storyteller began. He pulled a stack of papers from a manilla envelope. He began, “The recent death of John Lewis got me thinking about the past.” He went on to share that not long before John Lewis would walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, our very own storyteller himself had spent time in Mississippi. 

“Oh really!” stated the woman sitting 6 feet on his right.

Our storyteller went on to describe the abysmal situation in Mississippi in 1964. He said that Fannie Lou Hamer, famed civil rights activist and community organizer, had spoken at a church about the issue of voting rights and only hours later, the church was burned to the ground. He reminded us, “This was not unusual. There were 37 Black churches burned that year.”

“Oh my goodness! Thirty-seven churches were burned!” 

“Yes.”

“Were they burned because they were Black churches?” 

“Yes. That’s why they were targeted.”

“No! That’s awful! I had no idea!”

Our first storyteller, the woman sitting across the circle from our current storyteller, interjected. She was confused, and she asked the resident, “You didn’t know that happened?”

“No! I had no idea!” came the response.

Despite a year’s worth of experience in this work, I sat back and watched this interaction. Residents with significant cognitive impairments are often given leeway by their peers when participating in activities like this, but I wasn’t entirely sure how this discussion would unfold.

Then, the current storyteller graciously said, “Well, now you know something that you didn’t know when you walked into this room.”

The storyteller continued. Through his vocation as a pastor and his past experience in carpentry, he found himself in the unique position to join others from his congregation and volunteers from Oberlin College. He traveled to Mississippi over the Christmas holiday in 1964. They planned to rebuild this particular Baptist church and they called themselves “Carpenters for Christmas.” The storyteller had pictures and reflections of his own, and he even had a copy of a New York Times article that reported on the Christmas service that they held at the construction site on December 25th of that year. 

In the article, the journalist described this group of northern volunteers sitting alongside the displaced Black congregants. They celebrated Christmas service on a patch of concrete–the foundation of the soon-to-be-rebuilt church. The now 88-year-old resident reflected back on his experience with the hope and humility of a long-time pastor. In the sermon he gave that day, he told the worshippers that they were gathered to affirm the conviction that the builders of this country far outnumber the bombers and the burners.

This storyteller then spoke of a time when he and a few family members converged in Memphis in 2014. They traveled for several days together, and visited multiple landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, they made their way to the church that our storyteller had helped erect in 1964. As he spoke of the different locations on his journey, he did not spare any words when describing the horrific violence perpetrated upon Black people by White people. He pointed out that all of these egregious acts of racial violence had occurred during his lifetime.

Meanwhile, the woman who had originally been so shocked to learn about these horrors had been sitting rapt. As he told his story and showed us the documents he brought with him, this woman would read outloud the words of any printed material she could see from her position several feet away. When he had concluded, she exclaimed, “I just had no idea!” 

“You had no idea?”

“I didn’t know. I’m a northerner! I guess it was very bad in… what did you say? You were in Mississippi?”

“Yes, this happened in Mississippi. And Mississippi has changed since then. They recently chose to remove the confederate flag from the state flag. But this sort of thing was all over the South. Alabama. Georgia. Even Florida.”

“I just didn’t know. I’m a northerner. I had no idea how bad it was in the South.”

Our first storyteller, again: “Well, I’m a northerner, too. I knew it was bad. I knew what was going on.” And then she said in a fiery way, “Oh, Honey. You were very naive.”

As the two women carried on, one proclaiming her innocence and the other incredulous, the man who had told us about his experience as an ally in the racial justice efforts of the 1960s simply returned his documents to the manila envelope. He lifted the lid on the seat of his walker and packed the documents in this small cargo space. Then he stood up, and started moving. As he exited the room, he excused himself from our company. I hadn’t said much the entire time he spoke, but I quickly thanked him for sharing this incredible story before he exited. 

For an old man with a walker, he was gone in a flash. 

Then our initial storyteller sensed the end of the program and said, “Well, I’m going to go and see if I got any mail.” The other resident looked at me and asked when the next activity would be.

*****

This was just another day of Human School. 

Before I started this position, I had anticipated that it would be remarkable to work with seniors. I imagined that I would hear stories just like the ones I heard during this storytelling program. In the past year, I’ve heard from a woman who single handedly raised three children after the loss of a spouse and a son when she was in her early 30s. I have listened as multiple men told me war stories, two having lost their hearing due to their work as pilots. I have met many individuals who remember ranch and farm work with fondness, and countless Colorado natives who love to tell me how much things have changed. I even heard a story of a woman who vomited on Kirk Douglas’ shoes while riding aboard an airplane. I know librarians and engineers, grandmothers and widowers. In the multitude of identities that we each hold during our time here on earth, there is a single identity that sums us up: “Student of Human School.”

In a year of diverse experiences, I know that I have witnessed lives well-lived–lives that delighted in God’s creation– far more than I saw the sadness, fear, or loneliness of the human experience. Like the stories that were shared that afternoon, Human School lessons can contain the confusing, the sacred and the ordinary. I take my vocation as a student of Human School seriously.  This year taught me to relish my School days; they are not infinite. 

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