I realized suddenly this afternoon that today marks a year since friends, family, and students of Dr. Susan Colón gathered with the congregation of Dayspring Baptist Church in Waco to remember and celebrate her life, as well as mourn together her untimely loss from our lives at present. I count Dr. Colón as a patron saint in my academic and spiritual journey. She modeled brilliantly what it could mean to be a Christian and an academic and a woman at the same time, and that one could indeed be all three without caveat or compromise. I’ve lost count of how many selfish times this year I wish I could have spoken with her as a mentor.
I wrote about the week she died last year, and I hope you’ll read it here. As a way to remember her today, I have included below the tribute I contributed to a collection of other such writings about Dr. Colón . I give thanks for her presence and immense influence in my life, and for all my teachers who have poured life into me along the way.
As I begin an attempt to accurately and faithfully honor Dr. Susan Colón in memory, I find that there is much I do not know about her life and work. After all, I took her popular course, Great Texts by Women, late in my college career, her last semester teaching. I do not have the extensive and personal stories of mutual investment that I have been so privileged to hear for the past few months. Those stories are for others to tell–and I ask those of you who have them, please keep sharing.
We need to hear and repeat tales of the faithful.
Rather, I only ever knew her simply as ‘teacher,’ so mine has to do with the sheer power, grace, and weight of her pedagogy alone. It is worth notice and praise in itself, especially since it is a discipline and ministry to which she was so clearly devoted. She made stories come alive, but not only for the sake of entertainment to simply resurrect old stories to our millennial ears. Neither was her aim only to instruct, at least not in the sense that we were to move from one point to the next at the close of the text, with a neat, enclosed moral lesson to hand us, or a list of literary devices to recite. Rather, her aim was always toward the end of transformation: the classic “how then shall we live?” question mirrored back to us in narrative.
She shaped that last class around the question of virtue (particularly, what does it mean to be a virtuous woman?), and showed us along the way that possessing virtue means practicing it. What’s more, by way of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh in particular, we learned it is a thousand small moments and small choices that inform the larger ones, the grander events by which we tend to mark our lives.
Dr. Colón said one day of Persuasion: “Austen is asking us to look at more mundane realities and realize their worth.”
Not only did this cause me to recognize a worth in Austen that may be lost on contemporary audiences blinded by Hollywood’s rendering of her, but also to examine my own life—the small, the ordinary—in this light. I became struck by the intersections of the Divine in the mundane, the grace of the Presence of God interacting with the present reality, especially as we read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh together.
“Everything is gift,” she said that day in class. In short, Dr. Colón introduced me to what it means to live a sacramental life.
By the time we got to Flannery O’Connor at the end of the course, I was bursting to think and write about this more. So, when we were asked to share our final paper topics aloud in class, I awkwardly and apologetically announced that I would be writing about sacrament and sacramentals in Aurora Leigh and O’Connor’s short stories. My topic was outside the assignment, and even outside the texts we read for class. But Dr. Colón took my floundering gracefully in stride, and came alongside me in the final paper to make it one of the strongest and most memorable academic and personal pursuits during my undergraduate career at Baylor. She was dedicated to my discovery more than to her own plans, and that made all the difference.
It is rare to find teachers at any level of education who are willing to submit to its true purpose, to foster shape lifelong learners in the pursuit of Truth. These sorts of teachers equip with tools rather than easy answers, and invite students on a journey, rather than give them a destination. And that is exactly the kind of teacher Dr. Colón was. In the same way that life is made of small but key moments, though this paper and this lesson may seem like a small one, this schematic for viewing the world and the life we have been given has changed everything for me, and has directed my faith journey over the past year.
It is a teaching moment to which I have pointed as one of the most formative in my life.
Though I began by saying that I do not know much about Dr. Colón beyond the classroom, the accounts I have heard over and over again confirm in my mind that she was also the kind of teacher who carried the same questions she asked of her students and made them her own. In class, she had a mannerism of holding her palm upward when she was trying to make a point—a habit I find telling. She had stories in her hands, and held them up to the Light, asking, “how then shall we live?” and then lived it. Blessed by the story of her life, I pray that I am able to do the same.