Hope College Opening Convocation Address

Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011
Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse


By Dr. Marc Baer
Professor of History, Chairperson of the Department and Director of the Pew Society


President Bultman, Provost Ray, Dean Johnson, faculty colleagues, families, friends and especially the Hope College Class of 2015:

Raise your hand if you like sports movies.  I certainly do.  We like sports movies because they make the world and our lives seem simpler: the down on his luck boxer fights his way back and wins the championship; the basketball team from a tiny town somehow wins the state championship; the horse that didn't stand a chance wins the Triple Crown. So, while starting in two days these women and men in black will do everything they possibly can to make their subjects complex, we all know life is simple:

* Honor your father and your mother.

* Don't cling to worthless idols.

* Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

*Wash your hands before you eat.

I've borrowed from both an ancient and a modern text to prove my point, and to launch another: that we often have to reach outside ourselves in order to grow inwardly. During the next few minutes I'd like us to explore that notion.

So back to sports movies.  One of the best I've seen in quite some time is Invictus, from the Latin for unconquered. The film is set in 1995, just after the end of apartheid in South Africa.  Nelson Mandela is now his nation's president; but prior to that he spent 27 years in prison.  Rather than the path of revenge, Mandela chose the path of reconciliation.  One form this took was to encourage his fellow blacks to support the mostly white national rugby team.  The problem that called Mandela was that during the apartheid era many blacks habitually cheered against the team because it was so closely identified with the white minority oppressing them.  As the World Cup was to be held that year in South Africa, Mandela saw this as a teachable moment, for people of all races to reach outside their ethnicity and think of themselves as South Africans first.  But the team wasn't very good, so in more ways than one Mandela has his work cut out for him.  In one of the more memorable scenes in the movie, in the presence of the white team captain Mandela muses: "How to get them to be better than they think they can be?  How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do?  I sometimes think it is by using the work of others."  Mandela then relates how when in prison he used a poem entitled Invictus to do precisely that.

My only complaint about the movie is that they didn't do the backstory for the poem.  As any historian will tell you, you should know the context when you ponder the text. So here it is.

William Ernest Henley was born the son of a poor Victorian Englishman.  From age 12 he suffered from tuberculosis, and when he was in his teens his left leg below the knee was amputated.  After a long recovery, when he was in his early twenties the disease made a comeback.  His doctor proposed amputating his right foot to save Henley's life.  Refusing to accept the doctor's advice Henley got a second opinion.  The new doctor saved the foot, but there were two more years of recovery.  While in hospital he met his future wife, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson, who became literary collaborator and friend; and also while there Henley wrote the poem Invictus. It would probably make sense to read it to you now, but as you'll begin writing papers this week I have some advice: save something for your conclusion.  For once, I'm going to follow my own advice.  For now I remind you that Mandela was only teaching the rugby team captain what he himself had discovered: we gain strength by going outside ourselves. In his case while in prison Mandela turned to someone who was free, of a different race, a different time and a different country.  In an important way he was following Solomon's advice: "Get wisdom!  Get understanding before anything else" (Proverbs 4:7). Having reached outward, Mandela was able to nurture an inward commitment to reconciliation.

Even though you have the perfect roommate, in the next few months you may need to practice reconciliation. Two of my three children did during their first year in the dorms. Consider the necessity of simultaneously turning inward for strength and outward for tools.

Here's a second story, that of Mildred Armstrong Kalish. A retired professor of English, Millie Armstrong grew up on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression, living with her mother, siblings and grandparents.  The grandparents owned the farm, but had almost no money.  If I could reduce Kalish's memoir to a single sentence, it would be something like this: "If you want honey, you're going to get stung, and you'd better learn how to treat bee stings."

In the first part of her book Kalish recalls how her grandparents seemed overly critical of how the grandchildren spent their time, spoke, dressed, behaved.  She comments about them that, "in a good many ways, they never quite made it into the twentieth century. ... The austere habits that Grandma and Grandpa had adopted and lived by for decades were imposed on us with a vengeance. And we often resented their severity."  The rules she experienced were endless - about when to go to bed and when to wake up, about what to eat and when.  In our time none of us would tolerate such a regime.

But as she grew older Kalish came to comprehend the terror and tragedy of living poor during the Depression years, when, in her words, "poverty firmly strangled hope."  Half of her grandparents' children died before the age of two. She realized that the powerful lessons she learned during childhood had shaped her character: the importance of sharing, of helping out, of planning ahead, of doing your chores but also your homework; of obligations - to plant and tend the garden; to can fruits and vegetables; to milk and feed the cows; to collect nuts, mushrooms, berries, grapes, honey; to cut wood and harvest crops.  To wipe the inside of an eggshell with your forefinger in order to extract every last bit of egg white, and afterwards to dry the shell so that you could feed it to the chickens. And that, as she puts it, "when work needed to be done, it didn't matter whether the worker wore pants or a skirt."

It dawned on her as an adult that she and the other children had been bombarded daily with proverbs and aphorisms - all meant to instill the principles of surviving those hardest of times.

* It's easier to keep up than to catch up.

* If you're looking for a helping hand you'll find one at the end of your arm.

* Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

And my favorite: Use it up; wear it out; make it do; do without.

Kalish understood she could never do anything that cost money, or suggest she was bored.  So the children had to become creative: they built stilts, had jousting matches, created a tiny golf course, engaged in gymnastics and began digging a hole to China.

Her unschooled grandmother taught Millie that it wasn't acceptable to inflict your own ill temper on those around you: "If you wake up feeling at odds with the world, direct your attention outside of yourself, see what the world requires of you, and then get busy."  She writes, "I learned it was up to me to make my own success ... I was also responsible for my mistakes and failures. I was the master of my fate."  Remember that line.

Kalish absorbed these lessons about managing yourself, looking back realizing her character was being built from the day she was born - "improving one's mind" constituting "the essential focus of our lives." She recalls a conversation with the high school principal when she was in the 8th grade.

Principal: "What are you going to make of yourself?"

Millie: "I've always wanted to be a teacher."

Principal: "Good! You'll have to go to university, you know."

Millie: "But I don't have any money."

Principal: "I have every faith in you, Mildred. You'll find a way."

Three years later she hitchhiked to Cedar Falls and enrolled at what is now the University of Northern Iowa, got her two-year teaching certificate, moved to New York and became a nanny.  During the second World War she became a radio operator in the Coast Guard, subsequently using the GI Bill to earn a graduate degree from the University of Iowa, and went on to teach English at several colleges.

Here's the takeaway: when you return home for Thanksgiving, take your grandparents out for coffee and ask them to teach you, and then as Mildred Armstrong Kalish did, use their teaching to work on your interior.

Closer to home I have a few more stories.  The first is about a student I'll call Susan who was in my senior seminar this past spring.  Her story was as different from that of most Hope students I've known during the three decades I've been here as it was from anything I had experienced growing up.  Although the college paid me to teach her that semester, in fact she was my teacher.  The lesson was: we do not have to be our circumstances.

Susan began at the beginning: "I was what I like to call an 'oops baby,' meaning my parents were just dating and did not intend to have me. They got married and tried to make it work, but divorced when I was very young."

Her father suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.  Her mother has just left a hospital after having had her pancreas removed; she's been on disability for a number of years. Susan wrote that, "My mother came from a broken home; her mother was an alcoholic and her father was very abusive, so she got out as soon as she could.  She got married straight out of high school at the age of seventeen and when her first husband left her, she was left with nothing, no job or training." Susan's family remained poor.  In fact, she has lived in homeless shelters, motels, rented houses in violent neighborhoods and in a broken-down farmhouse with a wood-burning stove and no electricity or running water.  Her mother has never owned a home.  Susan and her mother survived thanks to food pantries, food stamps and the generosity of neighbors - and work. Her mother often worked two full-time jobs at the same time, and since she was thirteen Susan has worked essentially full-time to help out her family.

As everyone here knows, this narrative is a recipe for disaster.  And yet the essential lesson Susan learned is, in her words, "One can remain secure regardless of the difficulties life brings...[by] keeping one's mind immersed in God's wisdom."  Thus it was that Susan and her mother took people into their home and fed them, and now I'm quoting her, "not because we are now wealthy, but because we have a little and we know it is not our own, but all we have belongs to God."  Where did such an attitude come from?  Susan began reading the Bible at age ten and sometime after that heard what she now realizes was the voice of God, just three words: "Praise the Lord."  Subsequently Susan and her mother found themselves attending a very welcoming Christian Reformed Church startup, and she was baptized there.  Although no one in her family had gone to college and there is no "rags to riches" end to this story, her youth group leader helped her to set attending college as a goal, and took her to visit several schools.  In the fall of 2007 she came to Hope.  It was here that she discovered her passion, to help the church help people like herself.  She wrote, "Because of my experience with poverty, I have a special heart for others who struggle with it as well."  Having graduated this past May she's working for a year to save money to attend seminary beginning next fall.

Susan forced me to ask myself, "How deep is your interior?" because I think she had imbibed the teaching that "trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope" (Romans 5:4).  In this Susan reminds me of a student in a previous senior seminar.  Ryan enrolled at Hope intending to try out for the basketball team with his best friend, against whom he had played throughout school.  And then in the spring of his senior year of high school Ryan blew out his knee. While he never played college basketball he did discover a calling here, which was to go on to get a master's in physical therapy, to help those who went through what he had.  And so years later when a middle-aged college professor forgot that he wasn't a construction worker and injured his shoulder he was able to go to Ryan, who healed him.

A decade ago my wife and I joined a study tour of Israel - Ryan was also on the trip - taught by Ray Vanderlaan, a gifted local high school teacher. Ray frequently used something physical to enhance a biblical theme. One of my top ten memories was when we were at Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, where Herod the Great had built a magnificent stadium overlooking the sea.  It was there that Ray offered his lesson on Hebrews 12, verse 1: "So then let's also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us."  We were to imagine that when we ran the race called life we were being cheered on by a huge audience.  Afterwards while walking on the beach I picked up this piece of marble, a remnant of that stadium built 2000 years ago.  Tomorrow morning I'm going to place it in the plastic container on my office door, 329 Lubbers, if you're taking notes.  When any of you have need for it, come and take it, sit in some quiet place, hold it tightly, close your eyes and remember all the people who are cheering you on: your parents and your grandparents, your friends and siblings, and your youth leader from home and the R. A. in your dorm - and your professors.  Say their names out loud.

All the stories I chose for this afternoon - Nelson Mandela, William Henley, Mildred Kalish, Susan, Ryan - teach us not to be afraid to turn outward so as to work on our interiors.  Our true country has more paths and fewer walls, so during the next four years think about holding firmly to your most deeply-held values while allowing your mind to be fully open to learn new things.  Be especially careful not to restrict that mind to the present, or, as C.S. Lewis tells us, you'll be the most provincial of people, majoring in the ephemeral and missing the eternal. 

As promised, here's the poem.  Feel free to use it in the weeks and years to come, whenever you need to reach outward to work on your interior.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.


Thank you.


Brooks, David, "It's Not About you."  New York Times, May 30, 2011.

Common English Bible (2010).

Druker, Peter, Managing Oneself (Harvard Business Review, 1999).

Fulghum, Robert, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003).

Henley, William Ernest, A Book of Verses (London: David Nutt, 1888).

Invictus. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros, 2009.

Kalish, Mildred Armstrong, Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression (New York: Bantam, 2007).

Lewis, C. S.," Learning in Wartime," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (1949; San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 2001).

____, "Modern Man and His Categories of Thought," in Present Concerns (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986).

Mehew, Ernest, "William Ernest Henley," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), XXI, 365-8.

Susan (pseud.), "God is My Home," Senior Seminar Paper, Hope College [2011].