Dan Peightel '78 - More Questions Than Answers

As I sit at home on a Saturday afternoon staring at a blinking cursor and an empty screen, all I can think about are the assigned length (750-1,200 words) and the looming due date (April 21st). I’ve known about them since the beginning of the month. Yet with the deadline only four days away, I’ve got nothing but too many disjointed memories. This “opportunity” to reflect upon my time at Saint Joe must be payback for all the times I told a student, “Just write what’s in your head, whatever it takes to get started.”

I’ve tried that. Every day during the Easter break, and now beyond. And the result has been a lot of false, fancy writing—the kind of page-filling that I’ve always urged my students to cut from their final drafts. “Notice what’s in front of you,” I’ve told them. “As Hemingway says in A Moveable Feast, ‘All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ Write one true sentence and go on from there.”

So, here is the truest sentence that I know. I have never known how to teach writing. Not when I stood in front of my first Junior Comp class in the fall of 1984. And not now, 24 class days from retirement. All I’ve ever known to do is ask questions. And listen to the answers. And try to figure out what to say next. Sometimes, it was to offer a suggestion. More often, especially as I gained experience, it was to ask another question.

Ashamedly, however, I have no answers for some nagging personal questions. Why was I unable to reach so many students? Which of them could I have reached, if only I had listened better? When were those moments missed? What could I have said or done differently? Each year fades further into the past, and all that remains of those missed opportunities are haunting, faceless specters mumbling their names in my dreams.

So, I am left with this: What did I hope to accomplish?

Whether or not I ever asked you the right question, the inspiring question, if you were required to sit in my classroom, I hope you left knowing the value of your own questions. I hope you left—each day and at the end of the year—with more questions than you brought to class, with more questions than answers. I hope you left knowing that any answers we found were only tentative, subject to further testing. I hope you left knowing that in questions lie possibilities.

What did I hope to accomplish?

If you were required to sit in my classroom, I hope you left knowing that any advance—in math or science, history or the arts—begins with not knowing. It begins with a question. Inchoate at first. Gradually refined, made precise through language. I hope you left believing that words and sentences and punctuation matter, that they are how we make sense of the world, how we make sense to each other.

I hope you left knowing that facts matter. And that they must be verified, not just asserted. That your most powerful tools against disinformation are simple questions. Who says? How do they know? What are they selling? If you were required to sit in my classroom, I hope you learned to ask those questions of your allies even more than of your adversaries. How do we know what we think we know?

I hope you left knowing, too, that fiction and drama and poetry seek truths that go beyond mere facts. Stories and poems and plays are built on details too small, too personal for data analysis to measure. They are about a glance, a gesture, a wisp of hair tucked behind an ear. They show us the world from other perspectives. They allow us to live other lives.

I hope you left knowing how to read like a writer. I hope you can take apart an essay or poem or novel and see how it works. But, more than that, I hope you left my class with a love of reading. I hope you encounter each new story, each new voice on a page, with a 10-year-old’s sense of wonder.

Most of all, I hope you left wanting to write and believing that you could. Writing allows you to live your life twice, once when you experience it, and again when you recreate it in story or song. I hope my class gave you some courage to follow your sentences into the wild. Or, at least, that it helped when you had to face a blinking cursor.

But, what of these 24 remaining class days? What do I hope for them? Parkinson’s has worn out my body. But not my mind. Like any Saint Joe guy, I’m going to show up and work hard. Like the dedicated men and women with whom I work, I hope to do in these 24 days what Saint Joe has always done—help prepare young men for a future no one can know. What could the Class of 1919 have known, just emerging from the Spanish flu pandemic, of the coming excesses of the Jazz Age? Let alone the hardships of the Great Depression?

Over these last days, I will work with freshmen to bring their Solutions Showcase projects to fruition. Just this past week, a student previewed for me his animated presentation, “From the Big Bang to the Formation of Earth.” It’s designed to teach the origins of the known universe to curious sixth graders. My contribution was to help with the pace of the student’s delivery and the timing of his jokes. On Thursday, another young man stopped me to talk about behaviorism in the dystopian novel House of Stairs. I had to write him a late slip because we wound up discussing the Milgram experiment, set up to measure obedience to authority.

I hope, still, to raise questions worthy of such students and their ideas. I hope, still, to challenge them, to help them connect their interests, their passions, to the urgent questions of our times. How can we build a more inclusive and just society, beginning at Mount Saint Joe? How can we rid the world of hunger, disease, and poverty? How can we stop violence and repression around the country and around the world? How can we protect and restore our planet? What are the possibilities (and dangers) of a digital future built on artificial intelligence? As always, there are more questions than answers.

At its best, Mount Saint Joe is about change. This may seem strange for a school devoted to tradition. But The Mount is about changing the world by changing each member of this community for the better. Our greatest tradition is hope. It is a tradition that renews each day, with each teacher’s renewed effort to reach every student. It is the tradition of teaching young men that things don’t have to be the way they are, don’t have to be the way they have always been. It is a tradition that we pray, and believe, will thrive long after any one of us is forgotten.

Mount Saint Joseph High School

Mount Saint Joseph is a Catholic, college preparatory school for young men sponsored by the Xaverian Brothers.