College was a peak experience, gaining admission, I mean. I’d aimed high and scored. That’s how I felt. I fully expected to major in English; literature, writing both held me in their sway. My first class crushed those hopes. I’ll be honest here. There was a lot of soul-crushing going on. Now I know I was not alone drowning, but it didn’t seem like it at the time. My high school on the West Coast, as good as it was, had not prepared me for the rigor I encountered. For a seventeen year old 3500 miles away from home, the initiation was rocky.
Then I found religion—literally. The religion department saved me, ironically not before it almost destroyed me. My first class where we analyzed the gospels side-by-side, was taught by a biblical scholar who radiated faith despite what he was teaching. Each class forced me to confront the contradictions among the gospel accounts, these men who were conduits for the Word of God were, as he helped us see, just imperfect men after all. How did he reconcile the disparities in the Word of God with his belief? I struggled with the tension between dogma and analysis, and in the end, abandoned the faith I’d had as a child.
The religion I found, and the man who helped me find it, was Professor Donald Swearer who initiated me into the study of East Asian religion, particularly his area of expertise, Hinayana Buddhism.The vacuum created by an intellectual pursuit of the ineffable was slowly filled with the help of a man who I understand now must have led so many questing, questioning college students to a place of uneasy acknowledgement of a system we might not fully understand and find peace there. At least, that’s what he did for me. I wanted to bask in his approval and his calm.
When he took us to a monastery to experience meditation among those for whom it was a way of life, the meditation meant little, the journey everything. He shared that with us; he was my teacher and my bulwark. In my junior year, he was completing a text to use in high schools about Vietnam. One day he invited me to his office and offered me the task of indexing the slim volume. I jumped at the chance to work alongside my mentor even though I am well-aware that he probably saw the neediness I tried so hard to disguise. I do know that I undoubtedly contributed more work than I alleviated, as many questions as he had to answer for me about the process. Nonetheless, I emerged from that office a different person than the one who went in.
In my senior year, Professor Swearer was on sabbatical when I had to complete my senior thesis. His absence added to the overall anxiety I was experiencing. My father had declared bankruptcy at home. The provost called me in to say I wouldn’t be able to attend graduation with my peers unless we could straighten out the payment piece. My thesis was, in a word: garbage.
Somehow, though, I made it through. I have no doubt that it had more to do with what preceded that semester than the semester itself. I owed someone. I never got to say goodbye and years later wrote him from Colombia to ask him to help me straighten out travel documents in Philadelphia—which he did. I introduced him to my husband at our 20th reunion and watched two people who have enriched my life connect during a dinner conversation about rogue monks.
Maybe it’s college admission in the news, maybe it’s the monks visiting town, but today’s inspiration is a teacher who changed my life. Thank you, Dr. Swearer; it’s a pleasure owing you.