| The last bit of hot coffee is cooling on the camp stove, while the big sky morning warms into the full day. Most of the kids have already set out from camp, hiking the puzzles of the canyons until the too-hot sun sends them back for lunch, and they strip down and leap into the fresh, chilling river. Markís at the campfire, the embers still burning from the night before, and the night before that, maybe longer. Heís quiet, his eyes attentive, his big mug filled with the last bit of hot coffee. There arenít many chances to find Mark without a big audience. Thereís an open chair next to him.
Iím having a hard time focusing what it is that Iíve been wanting to ask Mark. ďIím sort of amazed, Mark, that youíve never criticized anyone in all the time Iíve known you. Iíve seen you get frustrated with people, and tell what problems their choices are going to lead to. But Iíve never seen you tell them their making a bad choice. Why donít you?Ē
ďItís the doctorís orders,Ē he says smiling. Itís the same smile that I remember from the year before, and the year before that, maybe longer. ďItís a choice I made a long time ago,Ē he continued, ďto let people learn from their own experiences. I donít take you guys out onto the river to tell you what to do or to decide for you whether the choices you make are the right ones.Ē He breaks out his joking, but well-tuned, Irish accent. ďItís whatís called a Hegelian dialectical transformative principle.Ē
But Mark really just calls it life. Itís his main teaching tool and really the most important one he has. Give him a river, ten days, and twenty students, and heíll do more with this little wonder tool than a lot of teachers might hope to do in their careers.
ďIf you donít give a person the chance to make their own decisions, theyíre never going to be the kind of liberated adults St. Johnís tries to shape. It can be hard to watch, sometimes, without interfering. But learning never befriended force. And it just makes life a lot more pleasant to laugh to oneself than to get up in arms over an idiot.Ē
This moment, the spark of a life-shaping conversation, I will not forget. I will not forget the tiny clouds that crossed the sun as Mark and I kept talking. I will not forget the sand pictures I drew while I listened as if my life depended on it. I will not forget the gentleness and sagacity of the humble man whom I sat with that morning. The funny thing is, this wasnít the first conversation of this kind Iíve had with Mark. Over the years, I remember many more of them, each very powerful and enduring, all of them on the river.
The question I want to ask is twofold. First: Where does the College see itself going in the next five years? ten years? fifty years? What is its self-vision? What lies ahead for the community, which includes all of us? Second: How are we going to get there without sacrificing the vision?
But maybe the real question is this: Can the College really continue to achieve its goal of being a liberating arts college without the presence and role-modeling of people like Mark St. John? Can the College afford to lose such figures? Or whatís more: Can we afford not to set Markís heart, intelligence, concern and well-roundedness as the benchmark for every new staff and faculty member the College hires?
Jason Scott (Ď05)