A former student wrote me this week to tell me she still has a few of my books.
In Germany, I loaned my books to students a lot. I was teaching American religious history and the libraries didn't have the books I did about American pentecostalism, apocalypticism, evangelical publishing, megachurches, the Klan, New Religious Movements, atheism, etc., etc.
Most of the time, the students were very conscientious about returning my books in good condition. I once had a student wrap my book in linen to protect it. Not a super rare book, just a history monograph.
Sometimes, though, a book would go missing.
I decided, early on, to not worry about this. It's important to me that I'm on the same side as students, supporting them generously and without reservation. If that means I lose a few books, I'm OK with that.
So this student writes me after several years, to say she has not returned several books on pentecostal history. I helped her with her BA thesis on the Catholic Charismatic movement--though I couldn't "supervise" it because I was still working on my doctorate--and she used some of my books. Which she realized she still had.
She realized this because she was going through her books, getting ready to move. She is moving because she's going to join a convent.
My former student is now a nun.
You really never know where your students are going to end up.
It's easy to fall into the thinking that successful teaching leads to students doing what I do. Teachers beget teachers. Historians train future historians.
But I like being surprised by my students. And I think the practice of history and historical thinking is useful in lots of different ways, for all sorts of careers, and just in life.
My student who became a nun could have been a good historian. But I'm pretty sure she's going to be an amazing nun.
So I'm really happy for her and wholeheartedly support her, like I support my former student who runs a theater, and the one who works in international human rights, the one who's at a bank, and the ones who've gone to grad school.
I think I'm lucky: I get to support them.
But it also reminds me of the challenge every semester: how do you plan a history class so that, someday, it will help a nun be a better nun, an account a better accountant, a homemaker a better homemaker, a lawyer a better lawyer, a physician's assistant, etc., etc.
That's the challenge, I think, of wholeheartedly supporting my students.
Also you lose a few books.