My senior year at Gettysburg was a busy one. I added some courses outside my history major and Russian minor. One I enjoyed in the first semester was introduction to philosophy.
“Now,” said the professor, “we’ve looked at the philosophy of David Hume, and commented on its strengths. It’s time to look at its weaknesses.”
The professor had done this with every philosophy we’d studied; he showed how each one failed in serious ways. It was good to see the strengths and the weaknesses, but there was a growing sense that maybe there was no philosophy that was thoroughly trustable.
In the last class for the semester the professor made an announcement, “For your final exam, I will ask you to write your own philosophy of life. Think about all the philosophies we have studied, their strengths, but more importantly their weaknesses. I want you to try and design a philosophy for yourself which will avoid the pitfalls we’ve seen.”
“Now that’s an exam I’ll enjoy,” I thought. “It will force me to do just what I need to do, establishing a basis for how to live my life.”
When the exam day came I wrote the first line of my philosophy, “My purpose for being on the earth is to help other people.” The rest of my exam paper I filled with reasons explaining why this was the best philosophy I could come up with.
“This is something I can get excited about,” I thought. What I didn’t realize, and what my professor didn’t tell me, is that helping other people is not a philosophy, it is a goal, and even then only a valid one if I were actually successful in helping others.
In the second semester of my senior year I was looking ahead to life after graduation. However, I could see no clear path to take me forward, only a tightrope of theory stretching to the horizon. All the comfortable, safe walls of childhood and school would soon be gone, and I would have to try to somehow keep my balance on this narrow span in an uncertain world.
I comforted myself with the thought that at least now I had a philosophy: helping people. I began to look for ways to implement this.
At a job fair on campus I was drawn to the Peace Corps booth. Being a farm boy, I thought about going to India to help the farmers there be more productive. I even went so far as to apply and a representative from the Peace Corps soon called me.
“I see on your application that you’ve had asthma since your childhood,” he said. “This is a problem. We’ll train you, send you over to India and in six months the dust will disable you. No, you are too big a risk. Sorry.”
Disappointed, but relieved at the same time—what knowledge or expertise did I really have to share with Indian farmers anyway—I cast about for some other avenue of helping people. And God was about to help me.
“Here, have some more potatoes,” Diane said while her two children watched me with wide eyes. Diane’s husband, Rip, a friend from my home church, was working on his doctorate in history in Washington D.C. and had invited me down from Gettysburg for a visit.
He paused in his eating. “So what did the Peace Corps do with your application?” He asked.
“They turned me down because I had asthma. They said that I wouldn’t make it in India.” I answered before taking another bite.
“Do you have any other plans?” asked Rip
“No, but I want to find some work where I can help people,” I replied.
Rip wiped his mouth with his napkin before speaking. “I was talking with a friend of mine recently who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You know, the part of the government that takes care of Native Americans. He said that they are short of teachers this year and would even take applicants without a teaching degree…as long as they could pass the National Teachers’ Exam.”
“Really?” My voice betrayed my interest, my growing excitement. The BIA worked in Alaska. I’d always wanted to go there, maybe this was my chance!
“And how could I apply?” I asked.
“I’ll give you my friend’s phone number. He can get you the application and tell you how to get an appointment to take the exam,” replied Rip.
“Have some more ham,” said Diane.
It was late June when I drove to the University of Connecticut to take the National Teachers’ Exam. I found the proper building and was directed into a classroom where about 50 others were waiting in line to be registered. Then, we were seated and the exam papers were distributed.
I began working my way through it. “Boy, this is not hard at all!” I thought. “It’s just common sense.” A bit further on in the test my eyebrows went up in surprise. I read the question again about why putting a jar over a candle would make the flame go out. The only answer that was somewhat correct said it didn’t have enough air.
“Look at that,” I thought, “they don’t even mention the need for oxygen!”
Then I came to the section on philosophies and theories of education. The names and descriptions meant nothing to me, so I decided to leave all those questions blank.
The test took about 2 hours and I left unsure of how I had done. Other than the philosophy section, I was reasonably confident that I’d been pretty successful, but what the overall score might be, well, I’d have to wait and see.
“In the meantime,” I thought, “I’ll get ready and make my way to Alaska so I’ll be in place when the BIA offers me a job.”
Picture: on the BSA 25 I’d bought from Dad.