Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Superintendent Sterrett

I haven't seen him in 33 years. For a time in my life, he was my boss. But twice, years ago, he said things that hang in the museum of my memories, and the first was, "You're hired."

When my master's program was over, I wasn't enamored with graduate school, and I missed the high-maintenance life of a high school teacher. So I signed up for an interview with the Glendale AZ high school district when the employment office at Arizona State University notified students of their coming.

Maybe I wasn't as hungry for a job as some might have been. As I remember, at that time I could have come back to the Midwest and taken a job in a Christian high school--I already had an offer. But I'd always wanted to teach in a big city high school full of kids of all colors of the rainbow.

There was a table between us--that's all I remember of where the interview took place; but I'll never forget the first question he asked. He looked at me, nodded his head as if maybe I'd already passed the first quiz, and then said, "If you had just one sentence to define yourself, what would you say?"

I wasn't then, nor am I now, a particularly up-front Christian. No matter. I had no idea how to answer, no idea. I'm political enough--aren't we all?--to want to put the best foot forward, of course, but I had no clue what he wanted me to say, and no answer except the one I had long ago recited, the answer to the first question of the catechism I'd learned as a kid. So that's the answer I gave him, couched in something of an apology: "I guess I'd fall back on what I learned as a kid, that 'I am not my own, but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ." That's what I told him.

He looked at me and said, "You're hired."

He was himself an evangelical Christian. There were, he told me later, other exegencies. He wanted a male, because I joined a department that had only two others, of twenty English faculty. He wanted an M. A., which I'd just completed. He wanted an experienced teacher, and I'd taught well in rural Wisconsin before starting graduate school. Everything lined up, and I won the job with the first answer of the Heidelburg Catechism.

I can tell that story now because an old colleague from my high school teaching days in Arizona just sent me a note saying that Bob Sterrett, the man who sat across the table that morning at ASU has died--without knowing how much he affected my life.

But there was also another morning, a morning which came at the end of my two years at Greenway. I was ready to move on, and when my alma mater called and asked if I would be interested in coming back to teach there--at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa--I was. We'd just had a baby, our first, and I'd always thought that if I was going to write, I had to be teaching in college.

When I went in to talk to Mr. Sterrett, the boss, he leaned back in that big chair of his and shook his head. "Why on earth would you want to go back there?" he said. "You're going to a place where you'll be just like everybody else--here, you're really different." He was as angry at that moment as he had been happy to sign me up.

What he said---and I knew it--was entirely immersed in our shared confession of faith. What he was saying was that--as a believer--I was really needed in a school like Greenway, where 60% of our students came from broken families, most of them new immigrants to the Valley of the Sun, their busted-up parents coming from hither and yon across America, many of them with heavy baggage but hoping for a brand new start. He thought going to a Christian school was akin to abandoning that very profession that had landed me here, at this job.

Time and time again through my life I've wondered what would have happened to me had I taken that prophetic warning and stayed in Arizona. Who would I have become? What would our kids be like? Would I ever have written a book? What would my life have been?

What made those words stick was the realization that tough choices are made that way because sometimes there are no easy answers. What Bob Sterrett meant was that a Christian teacher like the one he'd hired on a single answer in an interview should not retreat from the good fight to some wilderness fortification out in the middle of the prairie because the good fight was right there among his 2000 students. He honestly believed I was running away from the calling he and none other than Jesus himself had given me.

Was he right?

Yes, and no. And there lies the dilemma.

He's gone now. Like I said, I haven't spoken to him for more than thirty years, and he has no idea, perhaps, how he affected my life.

But just this week I got an unsolicited paragraph of praise on a social networking site called Linked-In, when a former Dordt student told me that she'd come to the conclusion that we simply ought to thank some people for what they've done. She was thanking me.

She's right. I never thanked Bob Sterrett. I should have. I don't know what kind of reading glasses heaven affords, but I hope that his divine self is now capable of transcending time and space and maybe even reading these words--or at least understanding. I'm writing all of this this Sunday morning, sitting in the semi-darkness of a room in the St. Paul Hotel, because I can't help thinking about this man, Bob Sterrett, who shaped--literally--my life, and the fact that, now, he's gone.

I should have thanked him.

But listen to this. That student who blessed me with unsolicited praise, ironically, was a student of mine at Dordt College, in 1976, my first year, the fall after I left Bob Sterrett's office the time he told me I shouldn't leave.

Somehow, there's a story here. I hope I'm telling it the way it should be told.

No matter. This Sunday morning I'm thankful for a man named Bob Sterrett. Maybe if heaven isn't wired, I'll run into him someday myself and let him know.


Anonymous said...

Well, Jim, little did I know that I'd talk to you again, but here we are 30 years later, both mourning an old friend and mentor. I did have the pleasure of knowing him these last 30 years, and I did get to thank him for hiring a North Dakota girl who felt out of her element with all those ASU graduates.
I will truly miss this man who took a chance on me.
When I attend the funeral, I will share this lovely piece with his family with your permission.
Oh, Jim, you haven't lost your touch!
Bonnie Hoffert

pgregory4 said...

You just brought tears to my eyes - so beautifully said. I, too, got to grow up and learn professionally within the Greenway family (it was 35 years, Bonnie). I am working in another district now and often marvel at how much of what Bob Sterrett demanded from us and taught us has helped me flourish in both my professional and personal life.
Best, Jim,
Peggy Gregory

Shane Larson said...

I am Bob Sterrett's grand-daughter. Thank you for sharing your memories of him. Your words are touching.