Freshman Orientation with a Purpose

On Monday I did something I had never done in my life.

It wasn’t climbing up a tall rock. I did that all the time when I was a boy. It wasn’t standing atop such a rock, looking upon miles and miles of mountains and valleys beyond. I had done that too, gazing upon the defile in the coal-rich mountains that made the valley where I grew up. It wasn’t being in the company of young people. I have been in their company all through my career as a teacher. It wasn’t praying the rosary. I have prayed the rosary countless times, and I usually say a decade while I am driving to work.

It was doing all of these things together, up on Chapel Rock, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, with the whole freshman class at Thomas More College and some of the other students in attendance to help out, and some of my colleagues too. It was spectacular: the bald New England granite, its crevices lined with moss and lichen; the scrappy blueberry bushes clinging to a flat stretch here and there, picked clean already by the birds; fir and the soft-fronded hemlock and the paper-white birch; a river shining in open stretches like steps down a mountain twenty miles away; wild raspberries, very sweet and soft, and mild orange bunchberries in a moist patch out of the sun; all that together was good and very good, but best of all was to pray there in company. Then it is that your age and your station in life fall away from you, and you are simply with your fellow Christians, in prayer and praise and chant.

It’s called “freshman orientation,” and that warrants a word or two. When my daughter endured her freshman orientation at Providence College, they had a whole session on how not to be the victim of a sexual assault, and why you shouldn’t assault anybody either, and another session on racism, and another on why you shouldn’t get drunk all the time, and so forth. There was no orienting in it at all, because the people who ran the events had no direction to which to turn the students. They did not face ad Orientem, toward the daystar that never sets, the rising and risen Christ. We do. We actually have a direction, at Thomas More.

My health prevented me from taking part in the full two days up there on Crawford Notch, but what I did see and hear was balm to the soul. We have seven students come to join us from Newman College, Ireland. The temptation for me is irresistible. I have to talk to young Irish people about the Irish accent, the Irish language, Irish food, and Irish folk songs, which we agreed were about four things, usually: drink, pretty girls, stealing things, and beating up on British men. Oh, and homesickness for the old country. One girl had a shirt that read “Dom Na Gall,” that is, the Fortress of the Foreigner – Donegal. They still speak a little Irish in Donegal, I am happy to say.

She won’t be a foreigner at our school. We are at home there in a way that’s hard to explain to people who have no experience of a genuine Christian and Catholic community. I had met some of their parents and siblings the day before, and we had dinner together, and could tell many jokes and funny stories about ourselves, some of them innocently racy, because we enjoyed the understanding that we were all oriented in the same direction. A lot of our students follow their siblings to Thomas More, and that means that you get to make jests at the expense of big brother or big sister, who might be sitting at the same table and taking them in stride, waiting to jump in and tell something embarrassing about the new kid. It is all a human thing and it is all in order.

That dinner came after Mass, and again I cannot help but make a comparison. I sometimes attended the midday Mass at Providence College, in the chapel. The usual attendance was around twenty. People have things to do around midday, such as going to class and getting something to eat. And then too the tour guides for prospective students reassure them, saying that the school isn’t really all that Catholic, and nobody has to go to Mass, and if you don’t believe anything you needn’t worry about fitting in. At Thomas More, we can all go to Mass at midday, because there are no classes then, and no appointments, and then lunch follows, when there are also no classes and no appointments. And I like being at Mass with my students. Again all the distinctions of age and station fall away – except that my knees hurt from arthritis, and if their knees ever hurt it’s from chores or football or something.

Another thing that struck me most forcefully about our orientation is how genuinely social it was, with a sociability that is quite impossible at a school of any size, and without any sure foundation for the sociability even if people tried their hardest. “Inclusion” is the slogan everywhere, but slogans are nine parts lies and one part folly. Or maybe it is the other way around; I don’t know. Yet there are a lot of lonely people at American colleges, suffering from a lot of depression and anxiety, and a lot of people who know that they will be “included” only on condition. They have to stifle what they believe, and they have to go along with whatever fad, usually stupid and often antisocial and destructive, has struck the campus. We at Thomas More believe in the faith, and we know that we share it with one another, and that is an entirely liberating thing.

As I said, my health got in the way of my enjoying everything about our festivities. I missed the bonfires and the hours of folk song. I missed compline, and reveille and morning prayer. I can’t go hiking up mountain trails anymore – though the forager in me very much wanted to. But I hope I did not miss the soul of what we did. I know that I do not miss that soul in the classroom.

Let me end with that lovely and quizzical question from the prophet Isaiah: “Why spend your money for what is not bread?” Catholics will in a year donate billions of dollars for the purchase of educational and spiritual sawdust. But my metaphor is not quite apt. Sawdust has some nutritional value, though it is very little, and it isn’t poisonous. Why do we spend billions for what is not bread, and is worse than sawdust? There are alternatives.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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