Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Learning to be American

It was one of those rare opportunities I had to sub in an American History classroom, so it was a good day. I didn't know that it would be one of those inconsequential days that end up changing your life forever.

I was straightening the teacher's desk, putting things back in order and making sure I had covered all of the tasks that had been left for me. I almost didn't see it, a flyer for free Saturday seminars at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, hiding under a stack of papers. I made a copy of the information and was registered before the day was over.

I have long forgotten the topic of that first seminar, but I will forever remember the giant of a man with the curly white hair (and the Reese's Cup cheesecake). That was the first of many times that I would hear Peter Schramm describe his family's journey from Hungary, from the country of their birth to the country of their heart. A story that never grows old. (You can read Peter's story here.)

I attended every single seminar that Spring, and the following Fall, and the next Spring. I was even chosen to attend one of the week-long Summer courses. Before long the Ashbrook Center started toying with the idea of starting a Master's program. I knew I would be one of their first students. Not just because of my love of history, but because of the man who never grew tired of speaking about Lincoln and Huckleberry Finn and the Elephant's Child.

The atmosphere Peter created at the Ashbrook Center (and I believe they continue to uphold) is what makes the program so successful. One of the first summer session speeches I heard Peter deliver was on the meaning of "leisure" ...I never worked so hard at leisure as I did at the Ashbrook Center. Sitting in that beautiful room, surrounded by books, listening to classmates debate the finer points of the previous lecture while waiting on the next one to start, the faint smell of cigar smoke wafting in from an open office door. As much as I enjoyed it when Peter actually taught my courses, it was almost more fun when he'd be working in his office and the professor would make a statement he disagreed with. From out of nowhere you would hear his loud objection or have him suddenly appear from behind the bookcases. You never quite knew where the class discussion would go from there.

I had the privilege to be in classes led by Peter on several occasions. As much as I loved listening to  him talk about Lincoln, I think my all-time favorite was our week-long study of The Invisible Man. I had never spent so much time mining the depths of a novel for hidden treasure. But, the class that I will never forget actually has little to do with the content. A week with Peter Schramm and Steven Hayward discussing American Statesmen and I honestly remember very little of the class. What I did learn that week was that the man with the mane of a lion has the heart of a teddy bear.

It was the craziest, most chaotic week of my life. I had been subbing for several years, was starting to think I'd be subbing for the rest of my life. In that one week I found out about, interviewed for, and was offered a job...600 miles away...and I had to be there by Monday. I was instantly overwhelmed and thought the only way to survive was to drop the class. When Peter found out, he told me not to do it, that everything would be okay. When I explained that I knew I would never pass the exam because my mind was scattered in so many different directions, he assured me that was not the case.

My life has changed so much in the intervening years. Time, miles, and responsibilities have distanced my interactions with the Ashbrook Center. Just finishing the degree I have worked so hard for has become a greater challenge than I anticipated. I am no longer able to spend time at the Ashbrook Center and I miss its refuge from the busyness of life. Instead, I must take refuge in lessons I have learned, many of them from Peter, about thinking and reasoning and reexamining, but mostly about getting to the heart of a matter...to its true essence. That's what Peter has become, the essence of the Ashbrook Center. The essence of what it means to be an American.

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