Thank you to Jordana Rozenman for allowing me to share her thoughts. Ms. Rozenman is a current graduate student at the Annapolis campus. She is a college counselor and educator in Washington, D.C.
I’ve been, as we all have, on a cycle of heartbreak and of deep gratitude and hope the past few weeks, generally as we began to move into whatever this time period is, and then very specifically as news came from St. John’s.
Because these feelings were solidified by St. John’s, there is a lot to say about the school. There already was a lot to say, as I am moving toward the end of my last semester in the GI, frequently thinking about what it has given me, what has come from it expectedly and unexpectedly, how the program and the people have come to mean what they have come to mean. In this legitimately unimaginable development, there are now even more things I can say about St. John’s. St. John’s is a small focus in the midst of a truly gigantic crisis, a small personal thing in a global event that is not about us, but to be sad and to be grateful I suppose is important at any time.
To be told, four semesters in, and seven years into imagining attending, that you cannot return to the St. John’s campus after spring break to finish your time there in person is a punch to the gut. How can it mean so much, some of you first semester GIs might even be asking (and I perhaps would even have asked during my first semester here)? How much proverbial Kool-Aid have I drunk? As it turns out, I am so happy to report, the answer is none. No Kool-Aid at all. The marvel is (and this does not come through rose-colored glasses–how exactly did I end up in TWO semesters about sixteenth-century French writers?! I DO NOT LIKE THEM) …the marvel is that St. John’s exists as one of what must be a very, very few places that does what it says it is doing. No Kool-Aid needed. It might not do it immediately. It surely won’t do it in the way you are expecting. It might take three or four semesters for you to even see it happening. Because the texts work very slowly. But beyond that, the people working with you on the texts–students and tutors–require time together for the program to happen.
To use the term “heartbreaking” for not being allowed to finish St. John’s at St. John’s might seem hyperbolic. But it is testament to the power of finding people who are about what they say they are about. A major, perhaps the main, reason that works is that the program is not, and cannot be, online. There is a reason that there are a disproportionate number of GIs who come to read and discuss the great books and who have flip phones, not iPhones. There is a reason we are specifically asked not to use digital versions of the text in class, but to use hard copies. Of books. This is probably one of the most important foresights in the program. It is only in small part about what (deep) benefits that kind of reading will have for the reader, and in much larger part about what kind of reader such a caveat will bring to campus. The intention of the community is to be found in people who want, and need, to gather around a text, in at least equal part as it is to be found in the texts themselves. I suppose I am talking about form and content. The content can be made available anywhere. The form is found only at St. John’s. If the form disappears, the entire meaning of the program is lost. To my mind the need to explain any of that doesn’t exist, because everyone who has ever been or will ever want to be a Johnnie, or who has been a tutor, understands this. It is why Pano was able to say at my Convocation that this is not a community, but a polity (and the undergrads went wild with enthusiasm at this). The particular idea of this polity can only live in classes and a campus that exists in real, not virtual, space.
In case all this makes it sound like St. John’s GI is not a “real place,” or is an escape from the real world, a four-semester-long respite from what is actually happening out there in the digital age to which you will have to return when you finish, let me be clear about just a few other points. St. John’s is perhaps one of the realest foundations for being in the real world that I’ve found. It is the opposite of an escape. It is a stepping stone. Nothing has made this clearer to me than the pandemic. In a program that is so short and so special to begin with, I was not surprised to speak with more than a few people who shed some tears about losing everything that it meant to them in the home stretch. But in the weeks that followed the closure of SJC and the closure of everything in the world, and the abrupt cutoff from a million things we love, I could not stop hearing in my head the words of a wise tutor last semester as we discussed a character who couldn’t get something he wanted: “Good practice for death!” (A very Johnnie response to a minor problem.) I had laughed when he said it, because he did not mean it gloomily. He meant only, take a breath. Let go when necessary. Be graceful. We do not have control over when our most beloved things (people, experiences, lives) are taken from us. So–good practice.
I thought also of Odysseus. (I’m not sure there will ever be a time anymore when I don’t think of Odysseus.) And I thought of the class when we discussed Odysseus’ long, long-awaited return to Ithaca. After 20 years, he is asleep when it finally happens. What can possibly be the meaning of his being denied the poignancy of seeing his home, his awareness of reaching it, as he sails into it after 20 years of imagining it? It seemed a cruelty to me. Our tutor suggested that the moments we think we are waiting for, the moments we anticipate and that take on utter importance in our imaginations, are perhaps not the important ones, as real life unfolds, at all. The parts of the future that we cannot possibly anticipate sometimes offer the realest moments, if we are open to them.
I think of these as only two of the times that what has come out of St. John’s has been grounding for me, in a way that is the opposite of coddling. It is not an exaggeration to say that I feel better off in a pandemic having had St. John’s than I would without it. I am so grateful for it, to have something I feel so sad about losing the end of. We have adjusted pretty quickly to the flimsy, flimsy substitution for classes in this emergency. But we are missing deeply, even grieving, everything real and organic that grows, during the classes (“facing with each other the questions of the text in front of us,” as one classmate put it), in between the classes, outside of them, through the people surrounding the texts. Such a polity does not happen often. I do not want to oversell St. John’s. It is not nearly perfect. But it is real, which is better. It is for the real world, and everything that St. John’s is capable of accomplishing is only so because of the fullness of the program as it exists. I am so excited about the stepping stone it has provided me, and the other stepping stones it will provide me that I can’t even see yet. It doesn’t stop, I don’t think.