This letter, which I recently pulled out of an old box, was published in “Off the Wall,” COA’s paper, back in the Winter of 1992. It was written by faculty member John Anderson and the advisee mentioned is yours truly. I have added commentary in parentheses.
“Oh I will put my ship in order,
And I will set it on the sea
And I will sail to yonder island…”
My advisee came to me to talk about his Senior Project. He wanted to build a boat (a fiberglass ‘squirt boat’ kayak) because he never had one (I did have one, but never one that I built with my own hands), and because it might be the last time he could do so, and because it made sense to him. I was taken aback, and I laughed at him (I think he really did laugh). “Build your boat by all means,” I said to him, “just don’t expect me to give you three academic credits for it.” “Why?” he asked. “Why? Because it has not academic content, because you want to be an academic, and all your training up until now has been academic, because your Senior Project should be the crowning capstone of your career at the College. Boats aren’t academic, if you wanted to be a carpenter and had trained in wood working (fiberglass?), I could allow it, but you want to be a lawyer (I wanted to be lots of things, but law was a favorite flavor then). Lawyers don’t make boats. Your Senior Project should be something that you can take to future employers or future advisors to show them what you are capable of.”
My advisee went from me (angry), and I went home through a darkening Autumn to find myself hours later still sleepless, thinking about boats and children and academics and life. Why not build a boat? The worst that will happen is that it will not float (drowning??), or will be crooked and never steer, or he will tire of it and leave it behind a pile of half-cut, half-glued boards and canvas that will go to the dump. Maybe it will float. Maybe he and it will run rivers that I will never see. Academic? Will he not learn the beauty of a clean line, the harsh discipline of a saw (I love that image/idea), the patience of drying paint, the power of an angle wrong, or a spar right (‘spar’ threw me – a pole of any sort in sailing parlance)? Will he not find strength in the stretch of canvas, knowledge in the grip of a nail, wisdom in timber?
There will be time in the dusty offices that lie ahead down all the dusty years to write Position Papers (or a doctoral dissertation) that nobody will read, to prepare Summaries for the cursory glance of the bored, to do Research (sic, his caps, interesting) on that which is of passing interest to the few and tedious to the many. There would be time in the hectic law courts, and in the half eaten lunch snatched between one Appeal and another Motion to remember other places, other times, friendships that lasted longer than a boardroom meeting (like the one coming up this Saturday!), conversations that were neither brief nor Briefs, and, who knows? perhaps a boat in white water.
Build your boat. It is not for me to say what will last you through your time, or what should mark your passage from our care into a wider world. I am no Prophet, I am only a Guide, and there comes a time when all real explorers must leave their guides behind at the old frontier. There is honesty in water and all that must pass through it. Boats will not listen to rhetoric, nor rapids to a fine turn of phrase. Let the waters be your judge, and this boat your argument. I wish you both well (I have chills reading/writing this).
“Who hath desired the Sea? Her excellent loneliness rather
Than forecourts or kings, nd her outermost pits that the streets
Where men gather…
His Sea from the first betrayed – at the last that shall never
His Sea that his being fulfils?
So and no otherwise – so and no otherwise – hillmen desire their
Back to my writing…
That last phrase is from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Sea and the Hills.” I sent John’s letter home to my mother — she cried! Wept big tears – at what other school would this kind of thought and understanding occur? None! That letter is pinned to the framing around my office window. It is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. It took years — decades!! — for me to truly embrace what he was getting at. I didn’t build the damn boat! (I did actually do a very cool and rewarding Senior Project, designing the Whitewater/White paper class with Ken Cline). But I get it now and, more importantly, live it now. So, for God’s sake, build your metaphorical boats and learn the discipline of a Saw!