Duke Freshman Enlightenment

The University of North Carolina football weekend bonfire soon arrived. The varsity players informed us we freshmen must make a huge blaze on Friday night before the game. The Football Captain told us, "Guard the bonfire from 8:00 PM until midnight because North Carolina freshman football players and students from Chapel Hill will to try to put it out. You must guard it at all costs." One freshman lineman said, “Let’s make clubs out of the firewood to protect the fire.” Players looked for wood shaped like a club. In minutes we stood in a circle around the bonfire holding clubs.  A large gathering of freshmen surrounded us to support Duke Football and build spirit for the event. We started chanting, brandishing our weapons, and walking in a circle around the bonfire in a brutish manner. From a nearby tree came a loud voice: “I’m a Duke graduate student studying for the ministry. Look around at yourselves. You came here for the best education available. Now you look like Neanderthals. What would your parents think if they saw you carrying clubs and shouting threats? You should be ashamed of yourselves. What would Jesus think of you? Put down the clubs, NOW!” What an incredible shock his interruption of our obsequious behavior caused.  It was like a bolt of lightning from a noble voice of knowledge had sliced into our consciousness. We looked at each other, recognized we looked servile and ridiculous. We all dropped our clubs. Having exposed our dark side we began singing fight songs, holding hands, and encircling the fire. This astounding moment made me glad I had chosen the pre-ministerial program and dropped NROTC. After I returned from a two weeks absence with arm in sling from a separated-shoulder injury running a punt back forty yards against North Carolina, Coach Cox sent me in against South Carolina. My opportunity to use Bux’s pass play was now. I completed a down and out pass for fifteen yards to our left end, Jim Preston. My rugged blond right end from Indiana caught one to the right sideline. Our right halfback, Bobby Wyatt, blocked the defensive end and instead of falling down, raced up the middle while both ends ran to opposite side lines yelling for the ball. My fifty-yard pass dropped into his hands over his shoulder with a defender nearby as he dashed into the end zone. With a grin he said, “Thanks for my first touchdown.” Infused with new energy I ran back to the bench. Our grey-haired coach grabbed me by the shoulder pads, “Mighty fine play, Lavery,” he said,in his strong southern accent.  My smile wiped away some of the darkness inside. For English Comp, Professor Crane, an Oxford grad, proved most challenging. World War II permanently scarred the left half of his face with a red burn wound. He started us on Earnest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the first week followed by a five hundred word essay on topics we selected from his list. He knew much of the literature by heart, passionately taught us how to understand the author’s purpose, and writing style, to help us write thoughtful compositions. As an American ambulance driver for the Italian army, the protagonist witnessed casualties and became disgusted by war’s brutality. Professor Crane made Hemingway’s nihilism, repugnance to fascism, doomed romantic relationships, futility of war, the lost generation, and false patriotism, fascinating. While the novels provided a fertile area to explore in compositions, my professor criticized me for inserting Christian values gratuitously that lowered my grade. He penalized students a grade for each misspelled word or grammatical error and was a word-master who encouraged us to expand our vocabulary and improve our discourse. “Heightened words allow you to persuade, teach, describe, and create compelling essays,” he counseled. My thesaurus, dictionary, and a writer’s reference book helped me put an end to my incongruous preaching. The Library Tower criticism and defense of my composition were cerebral. Professor Crane marked misspellings, awkward sentences, wrong words and phrases. He suggested creative language instead of the ineffective. The professor’s location for this confrontation of words, ideas, and themes, stood on the top floor of the highest building on campus. Climbing those hundreds of tile steps circling the stone fortress made me feel I had entered a mystical world of enlightenment where a wizard sat on a throne offering truth. He forced me to stretch my thoughts beyond the confines of youthful experience. The remarkable challenge started in my first frightful episode. I appeared at the door after mounting hundreds of steps with composition and books in hand prepared to defend my paper, planning to show him I understood what the professor wanted,and the author meant.  My fist gently knocked on his door. “Mr. Lavery, please enter.” Taking a seat across from him, I glanced at the hideous red scar on his face as he handed me my paper.  Critical marks covered my theme with corrections, crossed-out words, and suggested phrases that he felt improved my feeble attempt. A mark of fifty-seven appeared in the corner.  Devastated because I loved English, he had showed why my writing was deficient. Feeling fear and extreme anguish, I was unsure how to defend my offering. Having spent most of my time in high school occupied with sports, I studied just enough to make A’s. Now my ability to succeed was in question. His criticism of my writing was not mean-spirited, but an exercise in how to enhance a composition with the art of creative writing. I vowed to improve, or I would fail one of my favorite courses. How could I impress my professor, so far my intellectual superior? Having thought I was a better writer than most contemporaries, I had to adjust to this professor’s approach that required me to quickly grasp literary concepts he had mastered. He gently criticized my superfluous moralizing. He was an empathetic scholar. Why had I spent so much time conditioning my muscles weight training, running sprints, and watching endless sports? I lagged those who went to prep schools, or were not compulsive athletes.   In Religion I expected to achieve a high grade but my faith was barraged by the course. My Professor knew sixteen languages and used them to demonstrate different interpretations of the Old Testament. He shocked me when he announced we knew only a few of the writers who contributed to the Bible. Much of the writing came from ancient oral tradition. Fundamental Christianity had taught me to believe in the literal truth of the miracles in the Bible because preachers told me, “God wrote each word through the author’s inspiration from the Holy Spirit.” My professor had a scientific explanation for many miracles. Some of my beliefs evaporated into uncertainties. My indoctrinators had taken a literal view of the Bible without having studied its history. That great Book seemed far more complex.       The parting of the Red Sea occurred annually when low tide exposed the red reeds anyone could walk on. Rather than God miraculously parting the sea, as shown in “The Ten Commandments,” the uniqueness of a low tide at the particular time it occurred, constituted the miracle that saved the wandering Jewish army. God, referred to as Yahweh in the Old Testament, appeared more like a jealous dictator with a passion for violent death to anyone who broke His rules, especially regarding idol worship. The penalty for adultery and many other “sins,” included stoning to death. Moreover, in Judges 19 we learn that a father offered his virgin daughter and a friend’s daughter to a mob of drunks who gang rape  them, as long as they did not harm his male friend. The next day his friend finds his daughter crawled home and died. This brutal mob rape and murder violated no law and is not criticized as immoral! Removed from a church Bible study, these brutal images seemed repulsive. Secure in my evangelical belief the New Testament replaced the Old Testament before the class; could there be two different Gods, one compassionate and the other brutal? My professor took an unprejudiced approach to Religion teaching it more like an archeology, history, or science course. He taught us to let facts and reason lead to our understanding. The challenges he gave us made my previous  beliefs tumble brick-by-brick.

Related Images:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box