On Leaving St. John’s and Returning the Classroom

August 20, 2019 | By Gabrielle Bruestle (AGI19)

Gabrielle Bruestle reads a “toast” to the Graduate Institute at the 2019 Commencement ceremonies.

The following narrative is an edited version of a thank-you letter sent from recent Graduate Institute alumna Gabrielle Bruestle (AGI19) to the Hodson Trust. The Hodson Trust provides the funds for the Hodson Teachers Fellowship Program, which pays for grants for educators to attend the Graduate Institute.

I am astonished by the passage of time that has carried me swiftly to my final semester at the St. John’s College Graduate Institute. I embarked on my pilgrimage to this program what seems like ages ago, and I have grown accustomed to the yearly rhythm of teaching throughout the school year and learning throughout the summer.

As my graduation approaches, I would like to reflect on how this all began. I thought about this odyssey’s length a few weekends ago when I traveled home to Pennsylvania to spend time with my folks. As I settled into an armchair, my mom exclaimed, “Oh, you’re reading your favorite book!” I was poring over my seminar assignment of The Odyssey. She recalled that I had been enjoying it since I was in my high school English class with Mr. Partridge, an eccentric old treasure who forced a pack of misfits through Dante, Melville, and Tolstoy.

Five years ago, I finally applied to St. John’s. A handful of professors from my undergraduate studies had recommended me to it, but at that time I was reticent to leave my new teaching profession for another costly degree. I discovered that St. John’s offered the summer study option for teachers and I was sold on it. Somehow reading Homer at least one more time felt like a responsibility.

The summer that I was accepted, I was placed in Mr. Kalkavage’s Paradiso preceptorial and I purchased a fresh set of the Commedia in joy. I packed up my Volkswagen full of all my belongings and left Boston for Annapolis. On my way, I made a quick stop to my parent’s home, but I discovered that my mother had fallen in the night. We rushed her to the E.R. that morning and proceeded to spend the summer in and out of hospitals learning about how to care for a traumatic brain injury.

I put my ambition to go to graduate school aside and focused on the practical realities of caring for my mother. Thankfully, my brother flew home from Japan and took over my mother’s care for a few weeks, and I decided to take a break. She was recovering at a miraculous rate and I had a friend who was being ordained in Missouri, so I took the excuse to fly away and be distracted.

During my friend’s ordination, a cloistered convent came to sing the Latin mass. I was transfixed and actually followed them out of the service. On a whim, I rescheduled my flight home and hopped into their minivan. I spent one week in silence, learning to say the Pater Noster and gardening in the full-length jumper and oversized wellies that they exchanged for my street clothes. I kept having a sense of displacement and belonging simultaneously.

The Benedictine sisters observed a strict rule of silence, but during “recreation” time, I was able to do dishes and chat with one of the novitiates. It didn’t take long until we found our common connection: She had gone to St. John’s! She wasn’t Catholic, or even Christian, at the time of her study, but she read The Confessions during the Program and now was there in her black robe and Birkenstocks. I hadn’t read Augustine yet, I confessed. But I was dumbfounded by the reminder of St. John’s College’s ability to radically change the lives of its students.

Although being with those holy women seemed like the most important thing I might do at the time, I knew that I needed to read more. I wanted to check on my family; I wanted to go to St. John’s, too.

“Maybe you’re a Dominican,” the novitiate joked.

This summer, I’ve been lost in the panic of this journey’s end. I thought there’d be some satisfaction of achievement, but this education has just fanned some flame. Mr. Gu taught me to listen seriously. Ms. Langston taught me to ask better questions. Mr. Pastille taught me to relax and be honest. Mr. Caswell taught me to hear music. Mr. Stoltzfus taught me to sing. Ms. Ekholm taught me to have confidence. Ms. Axelrod taught me to play. With all these tools, how can our time be complete?

As Tennyson says,

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”

This college has made a conscientious effort to make this incredible education possible for teachers across the country. I am here because of the innovative scheduling, allowing me to teach during the school year and study in the summers. The Hodson Trust supported me and many other hardworking teachers all four summers, just because we are schoolteachers. And this summer, the summer study schedule was modified to better suit the differing school calendars from coast to coast, so teachers wouldn’t have to miss a thing. Thank you.

Teaching is a public service that demands workers of high moral and intellectual integrity. Depending on your school, teaching today can be a demoralizing affair. Parents and administration demand quantifiable results proving that learning is occurring. All the while, everyone is droned out in front of screens instead of books. Teachers have to provide emotional stability to children whose lives are either under- or over-monitored. The teaching schedule is relentless and working with students, parents, and administration can be emotionally taxing.

Yet when I go back to work next month, I know what people will say. They will remark that I must be exhausted and regret that I didn’t get much of a vacation because I had to study at St. John’s all summer. I couldn’t feel more differently, however. These summers have been a haven for this tired teacher. It’s been soul-saving. The books that I have been introduced to and the manner in which I was taught refreshed my teaching soul year after year.

Studying the Liberal Arts has been a deeply spiritual discipline for me. Who is a tutor but someone who guides us on this pilgrimage and what is an education if it does not point us to the Good? The liberal arts is a vision seen through a glass darkly, but I am forever indebted to you for the glimpse.