As a professor and a pastoral resident at the University of Portland, my official responsibilities are obviously to offer the best mathematics education I can provide to my students and to offer the Sacraments and pastoral guidance to the residents of Villa Maria Hall. I certainly do put the vast majority of my energy into these works, but I am consistently amazed at how some of the most significant experiences I have with the students of UP fall outside of these precise parameters.
About a week ago, I received an email from a science major who took my Calculus I course in Fall 2009; he was asking for a recommendation to a post-graduate program overseas. His note to me read, in part, “Over the years, you and I have gotten to know each other pretty well. My performance in calculus was one of my worst so far at UP, but regardless of that I feel like you know what kind of student (and person) I am inside and outside the classroom.”
This student was correct on all counts. His performance in my class was not terrible, but he never achieved the mastery of Calculus I that he has attained in the upper level classes within his own major. He’s not a resident in Villa Maria, so I haven’t spent time with him in the dorms. He has never attended a Mass I said or come to me for confession. Nevertheless, through just a few extended, informal conversations over these last two years, he shared so much about his values, his faith, and his dreams, that I probably do know more about what kind of person he is than any of his other professors. It was easy for me to write him a very good recommendation.
In all three Synoptic Gospels, the first extended parable Jesus tells is the sower and the seed. I like to imagine that the sower in this parable scatters the seed as he does, not because he’s really foolish, and not even because he’s wildly optimistic, but mostly because he’s honest enough to realize that he can’t always tell where the seed will find the best reception.
I know that as a professor of mathematics and a priest of the Gospel, I have been given good seed to sow. I try each week to sow this seed in the field of my classroom and in the field of my dorm’s chapel. But I have to be honest enough to recognize that sometimes the most fertile soil is to be found in places I do not expect.
Fr. Charlie McCoy, C.S.C., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of Portland. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog, reflecting primarily on the work of Holy Cross in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in the field of education to bring hope to the Church and world.