Seeds on a crooked path
Raymond Ramirez | Wednesday, August 26, 2015
It is insultingly obvious that your college experience is likely the most important educational event of your life; what may not be so obvious is why that is so. At a major university, and especially one that has attracted top national faculty and students such as Notre Dame, the opportunities to learn from talented and engaging instructors, as well as from fellow students, are plentiful. But let’s be brutally honest: when you finish your formal education, if things go as hoped, you will not know all you need to know to engage with the world and the challenges that will envelop you over the years. Rather, you will depart with educational potential, much as a seed has the potential to be an elm or a hydrangea or a lotus. Actually you will leave with many seeds, and you will see the resultant foliage over time. I credit, or blame, some memorable instructors for persistent habits of thought and behavior that shape my professional and private life.
Foremost is an instructor from whom I never took a formal class, but whom I heard speak regularly to groups of students. Fr. John Dunne, CSC, was a fellow Texan; it gives me great comfort to think that such a mind could come from Waco, more commonly known for Branch-Davidian sieges and biker-gang shootouts. Fr. Dunne was a prolific teacher, writer and speaker, but I remember him best for a simple warning about “the straight and dangerous path.” Not dangerous for being morally “straight,” the path Fr. Dunne warned about was a way of life that plowed ahead in a single-minded effort to reach a goal without appreciating the inevitable branching and deviations the world sets before us. My father used to caution us kids to “expect the unexpected.” Fr. Dunne’s elaboration was to not just expect it, but to celebrate it.
In my sophomore year, I changed majors from biology to English, and I had difficulty getting into some of the popular classes that filled quickly, such as Shakespeare. There were plenty of spaces available in Fr. Paul Beichner’s class on fable and allegory, so I took the course out of necessity; yielding to the “crooked” path, I discovered one of my favorite courses and instructors. Fr. Beichner was an eccentric and a man of many roles, including an artist whose linoleum cuts of landscapes and portraits can be seen in Corby Hall and other residences. He wrote (and had us write) modern fables, using short simple stories to illustrate or explain a moral or humorous lesson. A lesson learned from another instructor, Richard Sullivan, emphasized that the reader wanted details, and he insisted we keep that in mind as we hastily described a scene or character. “The details are not decoration,” he told us, “they give the scene life. You don’t say, ‘he smoked a pipe,’ you need to paint a picture: ‘he clenched a brown-stained ivory pipe in his teeth, its end notched and nibbled from years of use.’ Now the reader can see the pipe; hell, he can just about smell the smoke.” I summon these lessons when I have to make a complicated point in a direct and memorable fashion.
As an in-house corporate lawyer, I once had to explain that not every item can or should be listed in a contract, but important or material terms should always be included. The trout-like stares of my audience told me the point was not taken, so I came up with a Beichner-like example with Sullivanesque detail. “Let’s say you have paid to have 500 gallons of lime Jell-O® brand gelatin dessert (hey, I told you I’m a corporate lawyer) delivered to your warehouse. When you arrive, you see that the Jell-O has been delivered, but it was simply plopped onto the loading dock, and is covered with ants and flies. What else should you have specified?” The audience soon was a sea of waving arms, and people shouted out “containers,” “refrigeration,” “not lime,” and so forth. Years later, one of the attendees told me he remembered what “material” terms were because of the Jell-O story, and still re-told it when his business team had difficulties with the concept.
These seeds of accepting the unexpected and telling stories with humor and memorable details were just a few of the educational potentialities I carry with me; I’m sure you have many others, some now known to you, others that will sprout somewhere down the crooked path. When he retired in 1978, Fr. Beichner wrote, “I may have lived somewhat like a hippopotamus, mostly below the surface of the water, but with eyes and ears and nose above … a calm and undisturbed life.” But like so many of our best teachers, in his lessons he calmly planted seeds that continue to sprout and grow and bind our lives together.
Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at email@example.com