One of my most influential undergraduate teachers, Sr. Monica Laughlin, OSB (may she rest in peace), was fond of repeating three statements: “Simplify. You are more than what you do. Small acts of love can make a big difference.” She would have shuddered to see how much I try to pack into a d day, and would have rolled her eyes at one particular incidence. (Look up…sorry, Sister.) About five or six years ago I was biking into campus last fall for an 8:00am Piano Proficiency class, balancing both books and coffee while trying to get to class on time. I whisked in under the FAC courtyard overhang and almost ran over one of my students, Connor Sullivan. He paused and watched me set down my coffee, balance my bike, and then pick up my books as the bike slipped to tip over my cup of coffee. I would have said, “sh**,” had Connor not chimed in first, “It looks like you get to drink the last drop first, Mary Ellen.”
Grand Rapids, Minnesota (not to be confused with the much larger Grand Rapids, Michigan) is located at the very tip of the Mesaba Iron Range, about 80 miles from Lake Superior. Even though it’s famous for being the birthplace of Judy Garland, its real treasure is the quiet serenity of the north woods. My teacher-parents helped us spread our wings on the shores of nearby Pokegama Lake, the mighty Mississippi, and the dozens of state parks that dot the region. They couldn’t afford Disneyland, but probably would have still taught us to savor the simple. Coloring books weren’t allowed in the home, but Dad always made sure that we had plenty of scrap paper and drawing utensils on hand. We spent summer mornings in his art room, which was like a dreamland—easels, oils, potters’ wheels—so much more to mess with than what we had at home. My mother was no less resourceful. She filled the house with music, taught us to sew, and always had something special planned for “family day”—even if that meant driving to the dump and sitting in our station wagon waiting for the bears to come out. For my parents, “no things” translated into some really extraordinary somethings.
YOU ARE MORE THAN WHAT YOU DO.
When I left for the College of St. Scholastica in the fall of 1978, the “suitcase” my parents packed for me was filled with everything I needed—their love, encouragement, dreams for me, and a strong work ethic. I wanted to make them proud, but was pummeled by the school of hard knocks and what seemed like a relentless pursuit to fill in the gaps between my small-town upbringing and the institutions and cities that would continue to influence me. I probably worked harder than most to get into graduate school, but managed to finish my doctorate at Wash University in St. Louis at an earlier date than my smarter student colleagues. The GET AHEAD drug was working for me, but it was addicting—and I found myself wanting more.
Instead, I met my husband and we had four children. Many of you who know Mike have great respect for his intellect and achievements as an economic historian, most notably in the world of baseball! It’s unfortunate that he’s defined by his professional work, because I believe Mike’s best work was done playing blocks in our family room, master-minding obstacle course races at birthday parties, and teaching our kids the rules to HUNDREDS of board games (I kid you not). When he attended my daughter’s cross country races in high school, he used to always wait until the last runner came in before he’d meet Madeline at the finish line. At one race, he found her to be rather ornery because she came in second, so made sure that they walked past the girl who came in last place on their way to the car. She was happily bundling her things when they passed, joking with a teammate. He said, “Nice race,” to which she smiled and replied, “Thanks.” Madeline replied with, “Who’s that?” Mike said, “She’s the girl who came in last. Sometimes you have to run for more than first place.” I could bore you all with stories of dystonia and having to figure myself out as a non-pianist, but would rather leave this section of my talk with Mike’s fine lesson in YOU ARE MORE THAN WHAT YOU DO.
SMALL ACTS OF LOVE MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE.
A few years ago, during the Music History sequence, I received an email from a student who we’ll call Harold. He wrote, “Although I have been saying that I have been doing good lately, I can't sugar coat my real feelings. I lied to you. I am no where near where I am supposed to be for your classes. I have a list of assignments and papers that I haven’t done yet. I keep losing track and getting side-tracked when I begin to think about working on them. I honestly am scared of the next 3 weeks...I am afraid I am not going to pass your course, that I'm going to fail my paper assignments, that I am not going to have enough credits for next semester.” I responded with, “Meet me in my office at 9 tonight” and I readied myself with a print out of weekly schedules, all the while suspecting that he wouldn’t show up. When he appeared at my doorstep at 9:10pm, I could tell that he was trying to hold back tears; I, on the other hand, wasn’t in the mood for mothering. It boiled down to, “If Harold didn’t get his act together, Harold wasn’t going to be coming back to Viterbo in the fall.”
We were preparing for a battle of sorts—Harold and I—and I felt the queasiness of risk welling up inside. I paused to think of my own parents’ thoughts and feelings when they shipped each one of us off. “Does she have enough courage? Will she fold under disappointment? Will there be teachers and employers out there who will help my kid find her path? Did she learn any of the really important things that we tried to instill?” It was one of those indescribable, timeless pauses. I imagined myself in Harold’s shoes, sitting in Sr. Monica’s office thirty-plus years ago, and caught myself saying, “Harold, you could be a great teacher someday, but right now YOU are standing in the way of making that happen. If you can’t get your act together for yourself, the very least you can do is to do it for your future students. In fact, what you do in the next two weeks could make a difference for people who aren’t even born yet.” Two days later, Harold sent a text that he had 11 pages drafted.
I don’t want to pat myself on the back and end this with, “Because you showed some compassion, Harold succeeded in class.” It’s a simple cause and effect explanation that doesn’t fully explain the mystery of compassion. You and I both know that humans respond to even the smallest acts of love, kindness, and compassion. And when those acts of love and compassion are expressed at a time of need, there is almost always a positive outcome. During that timeless pause (when I couldn’t decide between scolding him or taking a deep breath), I unpacked an act of love from the invisible suitcase that my folks packed for me when they launched me into the world. The part of the mystery that isn’t as simple as cause and effect is that Harold had to recognize the compassion in order to be motivated by it. It wasn’t the first or last time where I’ve experienced how SMALL ACTS OF LOVE MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE – not entirely by my doing.
I would like to leave you all with Sr. Monica’s great advice:
YOU ARE MORE THAN WHAT YOU DO.
SMALL ACTS OF LOVE CAN MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE.