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“What I Was Meant to Do”

Steve Charles—After writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis captivated listeners with passages from his upcoming novel The Free World, a student asked, “What was your inspiration for this?”

The answer he offered made me realize why more students— not only aspiring writers and English majors—should meet visiting writers like David Bezmozgis.

In this “sneak peak and Indiana debut” of a novel that won’t be available until April, Bezmozgis had been introducing us to the world of Soviet Jewish emigres of the late 1970s—a world as foreign to most of us as the rings of Saturn yet inhabited by people with very familiar urges, longings, even daydreams.

This Bezmozgis novel and his earlier short story collection Natasha focus on the lives of a family of Soviet Jews during their emigration from Russia and their new life in Canada. It’s a life he knows well—born in Latvia, he emigrated from the Soviet Union with his family in 1980 at the age of six.

Yet it’s also a world, he realized, that students knew little about. “Most of you were born around the same year the Soviet Union collapsed. This must seem like ancient history to you.”

So he provided an introduction: “Imagine that you are a Soviet citizen never allowed outside the borders of your country. You’ve lived your entire life in a country you could never leave. And if you could leave, you can never come back. You’ll be branded a traitor. You can never go home. If someone in your family gets sick you can’t return to visit them. If they die you can’t return for the funeral.”

They left that country behind for an unimaginable future, and Bezmozgis tells their story from the heart outward with honesty, humor, and the hallmarks of his writing—clarity, verity, and brevity.

So why do you do it, the student asked. “What was your inspiration?”

“It’s a world I know, and a world I feel very strong emotions about,” the writer answered. “I grew up hearing these stories in an émigré community. I was surrounded by these stories. I can’t think of a stretch of history that’s so extreme as the 100 years experienced by Soviet Jews. That was always fascinating to me, and I’ve never seen it written about in North American literature. I thought if I could do a good job of it, that’s what I wanted to do.

“So that’s my purpose in the world. How am I going to spend my time here without feeling I’ve wasted my time? What are you going to do with your life? At what point do you decide what’s valuable, what sacrifices you’re willing to make, and what you’re willing to dedicate yourself to?

“For me, telling the stories of this community is the thing I think I should do. In other words, it is what I was meant to do.”

Vocation. As the late Bill Placher ’70 (and editor of the book Callings) once wrote, “The best way we show our love to the world is to love with a particular passion some little part of it.”

Many of our visiting speakers have callings. The difference is that writers literally have to come to terms with theirs. Their passion for that calling is revealed in the very works they read to us. And if a student asks, “Why do you do this?” generous writers like Bezmozgis will tell them.

Earlier over dinner, he told us that he knows he’s ready to write about something when it strikes an emotional spark in him. That’s where it starts for David Bezmozgis, whose calling is to tell us about a world that must be remembered for our own sake, and whose gift and finely-honed skills can take us there.

Read more about David Bezmozgis’ work here.

Under a Shady Tree

I wandered around campus today attempting to find something “new” to photograph in the splendid Fall color we’re experiencing right now (see here). However I was feeling rather uninspired.

I have a particular route I tend to follow when I go out on these photography excursions (perhaps that’s part of my problem) that begins going out the back door of Kane House toward MXIBS and the Allen Center then through the south side of campus to Fine Arts, north on Grant Avenue, through the arboretum, then finally through the mall.

As I approached the arboretum and looked across the colorful trees a song from one of my two-year-old daughter’s favorite artists, Laurie Berkner, came to mind – Under the Shady Tree. So there I was, near the end of my trek, uninspired, and now singing “Under the shady tree, you and me… lying under a shady tree, you and me… do, do, do, do.”

I remembered my first official trip through the arboretum three years ago just a few weeks after I started at Wabash. There was a young man “studying” (sound asleep) under one of many quiet giants shuffling in the breeze. I shot a couple photos of him and moved on. But today I thought back about that day and wondered how many other young men had studied under that shady tree.

I just finished a project that will be hitting mailboxes shortly before the Bell Game in November. It’s an exciting announcement about The Bachelor. During the design phase of the piece I spent a lot of time searching for just the right clip of The Bachelor to include as part of the artwork.

In putting that piece together, I met several young men from generations ago through their writing as they developed their voices, their passions, and their perspectives under those trees.

Then I started having an “if these trees could talk” sort of moment thinking about all the young men turned older who have made up the face of this campus – doctors, lawyers, politicians, business owners, pastors, fathers, husbands, and friends who “grew up” under the protection and guidance of the “shady tree” that is Wabash.

To the untrained eye, they just look like leaves set to change color and fall to the ground, only to be replaced in the spring with a new greener leaf to take on the charge of providing shade. I see professors who go to great lengths to challenge young minds to be better and think bigger. I see staff that go out of their way to nurture and guide. I see coaches who care more about character than points in the paint or third-down conversions. I see alumni who lead by example with their gifts and their time so the next generation of men among the trees can learn from the best to be the best.

They don’t disappear in the Fall. They aren’t replaced. They may no longer be with us on campus physically but they’ll always be part of the soil that gives the new leaves life. Part of the network that works together to provide the shade this year, next year, and for many to come.

Hmmm… all that from a few yellow leaves and a simple song.

I guess my walk on this beautiful Fall day wasn’t so uninspiring after all.

Gentlemen of Note

Last Saturday morning at about 10:30, an EMS truck came screaming down Wabash Avenue. At that time, several hundred people were participating in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, including a large number of cancer survivors.

The sirens and flashing lights brought great fear and anxiety to the walk’s organizers. Then, when the medics parked in the drive between two fraternity houses at Wabash College, fears of a different kind came to mind.

But instead of the medics arriving on the scene at a fraternity house to save a life, they came only to transport a very sick young man to the hospital; a young man whose life was saved by the smart, swift actions of his fraternity brothers.

No, this situation had nothing at all to do with alcohol consumption.

Wabash junior Mark DePrez

Mark DePrez is a Wabash College junior. He is a member of Beta Theta Pi. He is also a type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic who has lived his entire life with the disease. He is also a very private person when it comes to his disease. Unless you somehow found out, you would not in any way realize that he’s been attached to an insulin pump that regulates his blood sugar since he was 11 years old.

Like any mom, Mary DePrez was nervous about sending her son to college; even more nervous about sending him three hours away, on his own, with a life-threatening disease. And when Mark decided to pledge a fraternity, Mrs. DePrez could only hope that she had raised her son to make responsible decisions.

A week ago Friday night, Mark DePrez started vomiting. He’d been to a local fast food restaurant and figured he must have eaten some bad mayo. Hours passed and his condition only deteriorated.

His fraternity brothers stayed close to him throughout the night, checking on him, communicating with his mother, and helping him with chips of ice.

By morning when he phoned his mom, Mark’s speech was slurred and he couldn’t lift his body from the couch. The five guys looking after him — Ben Burkett, Brady Hagerty, Marc Noll, John Jurkash, and John Pennington — called EMS, which ultimately saved his life.

Mark’s blood sugar had risen to 1176, a potentially fatal level and the highest the medics had ever seen. Complicating matters, his blood test meter failed and his usually reliable insulin pump had a kink in it. A stomach virus, bad meter, and faulty pump almost cost Mark DePrez his life.

Those same students stayed in constant contact with Mary DePrez while she was en route from Fort Wayne, and stayed by Mark’s side while he was in the local ER and later when he was transferred to Indianapolis. Two students even offered Mary access to their family’s homes while Mark was hospitalized in Indianapolis. The fraternity men also contacted Mark’s professors to let them know he would not be in class.

Mary DePrez wrote a long email to Wabash President Pat White and Dean of Students Mike Raters. She’s given us permission to share some of what she wrote.

“These young men reflect all that is good in the men at Wabash,” wrote Mary. “They think critically, they care about their brothers, and they react responsibly. They are polite, caring, and giving young men. They reflect well on their families and the college. I am proud to say my son goes to Wabash and is a member of Beta Theta Pi.

“Our son was saved by his fraternity brothers and we can never thank them enough.”

Unless you’ve been under a rock the last couple of years, you know that Wabash fraternities have gotten some bad press. It’s sad that major media fails to dial in on the great things that happen in fraternities at schools like Wabash — the lifelong relationships, the brotherhood, the trust, and the leadership development.

That same weekend when Mark DePrez’ life was in danger, members of three Wabash fraternities (Theta Delta Chi, Beta Theta Pi, and Lambda Chi Alpha) helped set up, execute, and tear down the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event.

Think about that for a second.

Fraternity guys from an all-male college, working on a cold, rainy Saturday morning to help local women raise $23,000 for breast cancer research, support, and advocacy.

Not the kind of stuff that makes headlines; just the quiet, good work done by some of the Gentlemen of Wabash.

Immigration Has a Face

Jim Amidon — I had just come out of a meeting Thursday morning and was frantically trying to respond to about two-dozen emails that arrived in the hour I was away from my desk. At about 9:35, Wabash English Professor Warren Rosenberg called me to tell me about a unique panel discussion that I wouldn’t want to miss.

Christie Byun

The topic: immigration.

The panelists: Six members of the Wabash faculty who have at some point in their lives been immigrants.

The time: Ten minutes from the moment I hung up with Professor Rosenberg!

I recalled a similar collaboration a few years ago that produced some wonderful stories, photos, and classroom experiences, so I grabbed a camera and notepad and took off for Detchon Hall.

Gilberto Gomez

When I got there I found three different classes all studying — in various ways — the topic of immigration. And what better time for Wabash students to be discussing the myriad issues surrounding immigration than now — when so much is being written about sealing our borders and tightening already difficult immigration standards.

Sitting in front of the roughly 45 students were professors Gilberto Gomez (Spanish), Peter Mikek (economics), Christie Byun (economics), Sam Rocha (teacher education), Agata Szczeszak-Brewer (English), and Jane Hardy (Spanish). After each professor talked about his or her experiences immigrating to (or from) the United States, the panelists took a range of questions from the students.

It was fascinating to listen to each person describe their feelings about immigration.

For Professor Szczeszak-Brewer, the decision to migrate from her native Poland was very difficult because of the closeness of her family. And if her American-born husband could have spoken better Polish, they probably would have ended up in her home country.

“In my case, I wondered if I could define myself outside my family and my community,” she said.

Sam Rocha

Professor Rocha was born in “the Valley” of South Texas in Brownsville. For generations, his family owned horse ranches near the border. When his parents moved to Mexico as missionaries, Rocha was, technically, an illegal immigrant, where he felt prejudice because he was too “Anglo.” When the family returned to Texas, the prejudice returned — this time because he was too Hispanic.

“When you live in the Valley, you speak Spanish,” Professor Rocha told the students. “But if my family was told to go ‘home,’ we would go north.”

Professor Hardy is a United States citizen married to Professor Mikek, who is Slovenian, and their two sons have dual citizenship. But for a short time, she lived and worked in Spain, and she later lived in Slovenia for five years.

“After living outside the United States, when I came back I had this feeling like I didn’t fit in,” Professor Hardy said. “I was aware after being away that I had changed and my identity had shifted.”

Professor Gomez agreed. “Being an immigrant gives you the proverbial double vision… For those of us who move back and forth, we develop an ability to see things from multiple perspectives.”

Peter Mikek

Professor Mikek said he is easily frustrated by questions about his identity, but he also said the topic leads to good classroom discussions.

“I often ask my students, ‘What makes you American and what makes me different?’ It’s a shockingly difficult question,” Mikek said.

One student asked the professors why they chose to stay in America. Professor Gomez gave a brief history lesson and reminded the students that since the dawn of time humans have been nomadic. The concept of staying in one place — in one country — is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Agata Szczeszak-Brewer & Jane Hardy

Professor Szczeszak-Brewer, being the fine teacher she is, turned the question around and posed an interesting notion to the students.

“We do tend to be nomadic, to move, to seek new ways to define ourselves, yet we have a need to fit in,” she said. “These two sentiments are present at the same time. As college students, you want to seek and to explore — all so that you can determine who you are. And yet you join fraternities and clubs so that you feel as though you fit in.”

Professor Mikek wanted to drive home one key point: The Wabash professors are in the tiny minority of most immigrants in this country. “We were not forced to come here for financial reasons,” he said. “We are part of a brain drain from other countries… Look around at places like NASA and you’ll find people from all over the world working there.”

When Professor Szczeszak-Brewer introduced the panel, she said, “We teach immigration and exile in our classes… and we want to place human faces behind the history and the stories.”

By the end of the discussion, the students still had more questions than answers. But they also began to realize that behind the radio talk shows and screaming headlines, immigration is about real people. Immigration has a face.